Polar bears and 50 other species threatened by climate change
Polar bears and 50 other species threatened by climate change
Climate change has emerged as a more urgent issue than ever, especially considering the Trump administration’s moves to roll back Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on carbon emissions, including those for coal-fueled power plants, as well as relaxing fuel efficiency standards put in place by the Obama administration.
Animals such as koalas, sea turtles, and polar bears find themselves at the heart of the crisis, and those three are just a start. Some reports say a third of the world's animal species will become extinct by the middle of the century if humans continue to release harmful greenhouse gases at the current rate. A recent U.N. report puts the number at as many as 1 million species at risk of extinction due to climate change, and species loss is occurring exponentially faster than it has in the past due to human activity. Land use changes currently account for some of the accelerated extinction, but more and more, climate change is becoming a bigger force in putting certain animals on the endangered species list.
Some animals are able to adapt to alterations in temperature and weather, but others can survive or feed only in certain climates. Take the polar bear, which depends on sea ice for hunting and mating. Scientists note that climate change is causing sea ice to disappear at an alarming rate, threatening the polar bear’s survival. Losing the polar bear, as well as other plants and animals, is not only a deeply tragic loss: It has huge ramifications for human life as well. The same U.N. report noted that this loss of biodiversity threatens food and water supplies as well as other resources that humans count on for survival.
Read on to learn about 50 of the world’s animal species that fall into the categories of vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered due to climate change.
Story updated by Isabel Sepulveda.
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These alpine felines can be found in the mountains of China, Nepal, and India, among other Asian countries. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) classifies the snow leopard as vulnerable and cautions that treeline shift from greenhouse gases could significantly deplete the animal’s habitat. Dwindling populations of this big cat’s prey, such as pikas and hares, also play a role in its status. Although the leopard has gone from "endangered" to "at risk," the species is still slated to lose about 10% of its population over the next three generations.
This vulnerable species of bear—and longtime logo of the WWF—dwells mainly in bamboo forests in the mountains of Western China. Increasing temperatures cause the panda’s main food source, bamboo, to abruptly flower and die, which causes the bears to seek alternative areas to feed and live. In order to maintain a healthy diet, pandas must consume 26 to 84 pounds of bamboo every day.
Green sea turtle
Found in tropical and subtropical waters all over the world, green sea turtles, like others of their kind, remain sensitive throughout their lives to ocean temperatures. The temperature of the sand in which their eggs are laid affect the sex of the turtle hatchlings, and rising ocean temperatures are creating more female sea turtles. That poses a threat to the genetic diversity of the species. Plus, increasing sea levels due to polar ice cap melting makes it more difficult for sea turtles to lay their eggs on beaches. The WWF classifies the green sea turtle as endangered.
These Africa-dwelling giants are divided into two subspecies: the savanna elephant, which resides in planes and woodlands, and the smaller forest elephant, which inhabits central and western African equatorial forests. These elephants, classified as vulnerable, are sensitive to the heat, and continued global warming dampens the animal’s ability to reproduce. Confined dispersal due to habitat fragmentation, along with modest genetic diversity, affect the elephant’s ability to adapt to rising temperatures. Perhaps the most important factor in the African elephants' survival is their need for a great deal of freshwater, which directly affects their reproduction and migration.
Native to the mountains of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the remaining mountain gorillas are now protected in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park. In the wild, rising temperatures threaten to shift certain types of plants to higher elevations, leaving the critically endangered gorilla with fewer nutrition options. In order to adapt to changing conditions, the gorilla habitats may need to be expanded beyond these parks.
This speedy big cat makes sub-Saharan Africa its home, but it can also be found in southern Algeria and northern Niger. Rising temperatures apparently have caused the male cheetah's sperm to develop abnormally and has diminished male testosterone levels, impacting the animal’s ability to reproduce. Also, climate change has taken a toll on the gazelle, one of the cheetah’s favorite meals. As such, the feline has to seek out herbivore options that are lower in protein than the gazelle. Because its largest population hovers at around 3,500, the cheetah is considered vulnerable—though some scientists claim it should be listed as endangered.
Poison dart frog
Residing mainly in the rainforests of Central America and South America, this critically endangered species of frog, like all frogs, relies on water to sustain itself in tadpole form. As temperatures continue to shoot up due to global warming, sources of water start to diminish in some rainforest areas, which threatens tadpoles’ survival. Human activities that cause habitat fragmentation make it even harder for species such as this to withstand changes in climate. The poison dart frog has only one natural predator, a snake that is immune to the frog’s toxicity.
This endangered big cat roams the tropical and woodland forests of eastern Russia, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, among other Asian countries. Several climate-related factors contribute to the tiger’s endangered status: Rising sea levels impinge on coastal habitats for Bengal tigers; changing temperatures encroach on habitats for Siberian tigers, ultimately causing fewer feeding options; wildfires threaten to diminish Siberian tiger dwelling places and food sources; and, although human-caused, deforestation contributes to changing climates. That doesn’t bode well for the Sumatran tiger, which is nearing extinction.
Found in South American waters as well as the Arctic, dolphins of all types are threatened by climate change. As global warming relentlessly ratchets up ocean temperatures, populations of some dolphin prey have started to decrease. Changing ocean currents also affect the distribution of fish on which dolphins feed, as well as channels in which dolphins migrate. Sixteen species of dolphins (and whales) are categorized in danger of extinction, such as the New Zealand Maui dolphin and several types of river dolphins.
These herbivorous creatures are also called the “lesser panda” and “red bear-cat,” and live mainly in the eastern Himalayas. Red pandas have been classified as endangered as they face the degradation of their main food source: bamboo. This leads to habitat loss and fragmentation, similar to the effects on the giant panda.
Warming oceans cause an array of problems for aquatic and marine animals. In the case of the Galapagos-dwelling marine iguana, rising ocean temperatures have been killing algae, causing many of these lizards to starve. Elevating sea and air temperatures also contribute to these coastal iguanas' vulnerable status. Warmer weather can interfere with their ability to regulate body temperature, and it can tamper with their beach-nesting and egg development.
Greater one-horned rhino
One-horned rhinos live in tropical and subtropical grasslands in the north of the Indian subcontinent. Though miraculously brought back from the brink of extinction a couple of decades ago, the animal is still flagged as vulnerable partly because of the growth of an invasive weed, nicknamed “mile a minute weed,” which wipes out grasses and tree saplings integral to the rhino’s diet. Rising temperatures are also taking a toll. Rhinos need to cool down in large pools of water, which are becoming more and more scarce.
The Atlantic cod's preferred habitat is right in its name. In North America, they can be found in Atlantic waters from Cape Cod to northern Labrador. These fish need relatively cool waters to thrive, at temperatures between 32 and 53 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cod’s size and reproduction habits are directly connected to water temperature. At extremes in either direction, cod tend to eat less and to not grow as large, and in warmer water, they tend to mature more slowly and to reproduce earlier. So it’s no surprise that cod populations have been dropping due to rising ocean temperatures. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature categorizes the Atlantic cod as vulnerable.
These tropical ocean-dwelling creatures fall into the endangered category partly due to increasing ocean temperatures—which cause them to flock to waters around the Azores, west of Portugal. Though they can survive in fairly warm waters, whale sharks still prefer cooler sea temperatures. As water temperatures rise, the future for whale sharks could be bleak.
Lurking in the tropical forests and grasslands of southeast Asia, this endangered elephant, like its African counterpart, is sensitive to high temperatures, needs a lot of fresh water to thrive, and has trouble moving to other locations due to smaller and isolated habitats. And, like the one-horned rhino, invasive plants impinge on the elephant's food supply.
African wild dog
One of the most endangered mammals worldwide, this wild dog roams the southern part of East Africa. Like many land mammals, these dogs don't fare well in excessive heat and don’t have the option of heading to cooler areas at higher altitudes. They need to hunt during the day in order to orchestrate their attacks, and as temperatures continue to rise, their number of sufficiently cooler daytime hours to hunt is diminishing. As a result, fewer wild dog pups are able to survive.
These critically endangered sea turtles swim in tropical oceans throughout the world and owe their status to rising ocean temperatures. Similar to the case of the green sea turtle, warmer beaches, where these turtles lay their eggs, lead to the spawning of more female turtles, limiting genetic diversity. Rising sea-surface temperatures and changing ocean currents may also contribute to the endangerment of these turtles, because they disrupt migration patterns.
Rising ocean temperatures, a common link between species threatened by climate change, is largely to blame for this seabird’s vulnerable status. Because of changing fish populations, the Atlantic puffin is unable to feed properly, and survival rates for puffin chicks have been low. Atlantic puffins inhabit oceans from the eastern Canadian coast to the northeastern U.S. and from the western European coast to northern Russia.
These giants of the coral reef fall into the endangered category because of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air, which lead to ocean acidification and degradation of coral reefs. Some scientists predict that about 70% of coral reefs will be impacted by greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, unless humans make significant changes to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.
Intense droughts and bushfires threaten to alter the habitats of this iconic Australian marsupial. Hotter temperatures are, of course, the culprit of these environmental factors, which prove detrimental to koalas, as they have little tolerance for extreme heat and lack of water. This combined with habitat fragmentation, commercial hunting, and wild dog attacks makes the koala a vulnerable species.
The second-largest species of whale, the fin whale swims in the Gulf of California, Arctic Ocean, and the Coral Triangle. Several climatic factors contribute to this baleen whale’s endangered status. Warming ocean temperatures are killing Antarctic krill and herring, important parts of the fin whale’s diet.
Relatively close cousins of manatees, dugongs swim in coastal areas of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. It’s no surprise that these large marine mammals are, like their cousins, called sea cows. They are a vulnerable species due in part to environmental threats to their primary food source, seagrass. The largest threats to seagrass growth are floods and storms, but river runoff has also taken a toll on seagrass populations.
Comprised of the ringed, ribbon, bearded, and spotted seals, these arctic mammals rely on a great deal of ice to survive. Spiking temperatures and melting ice can separate seal pups from their mothers when they still need to feed, and loss of ice also affects the seals’ ability to build proper habitats to shelter pups. Several types of ice seals are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
This vulnerable salamander can be found only in Shenandoah National Park. There, it faces climatic threats, such as habitat destruction spurred by invasive insects. Acid deposits have also altered the chemical structure of the soil containing creatures the salamander eats. This amphibian prefers to dwell in cooler environments, so rising temperatures may impede upon its ability to thrive.
The critically endangered Amur leopard dwells in temperate and broadleaf forests of far eastern Russia. Colder temperatures and thick snowfall prevent this leopard from expanding northward, and fires have diminished forest cover, which plays an important role in this big cat’s habitat. These felines have been known to jump as far as 19 feet horizontally and as high as 10 feet.
Leatherback sea turtle
The largest species of sea turtle, the leatherback is highly migratory and swims across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Every summer and fall, Pacific leatherbacks migrate from the Coral Triangle to the coast of California to feast on jellyfish. As is the case with all sea turtles, rising sea levels impact egg-laying grounds, and warmer sand temperatures can destroy eggs or lead to an overabundance of female turtles. Additionally, these turtles, categorized as vulnerable, feed among coral reefs and beds of seagrass, which have suffered from acidification and runoff.
Rusty patched bumblebee
Though the rusty patched bee was once prevalent in Midwestern and Northeastern U.S. grasslands and tallgrass prairies, it has suffered from habitat loss as those lands have become farms. High temperatures and extreme rain—as well as drought and premature snow melting—hinder the flowering of pollinator plants, restrict areas for queens to nest and hibernate, and shorten the time for honey-gathering. These factors contribute to the rusty patched bee’s endangered status, as the species teeters on the brink of extinction.
This ferret species, native to North American forests, was once thought to be extinct, but conservation efforts have given it a second chance. Some 300 ferrets remain today. The endangered ferret’s main food source, prairie dogs, have been on the decline due to disease, brought about in part by rising temperatures.
North Atlantic right whale
As its name suggests, the North Atlantic right whale roams the coastal waters of the eastern United States. Similar to other baleen whale species, it is categorized as endangered due to increasing ocean temperatures. Warmer waters are killing off whale food supplies like phytoplankton and krill, but as whales shift northward to find food, limited protection policies increase their risk of being ensnared by ships or fishing equipment.
The Javan rhino is the most threatened of the five species of rhino. Having once roamed northeastern India and Southeast Asia, what remains of this species lives in Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia. Several climatic factors threaten the critically endangered rhino, such as tsunamis, rising sea levels, and the potential explosion of the neighboring Anak Krakatau volcano.
Great white shark
The largest of the predatory fish, the great white shark populates waters off the coast of California, southern Chile, East Africa, and the Galapagos. Researchers are still piecing together the effect of climate change on sharks, but rising ocean temperatures and acidification have been tampering with fish and marine mammals that sharks eat. The changing conditions have also been impacting shark migration and breeding patterns. Though great whites are highly migratory, they are slow to adapt to changing climates, which partially contributes to their status as vulnerable.
This rare arctic bird can be found on sea ice off the coasts of Greenland and Canada, where it is categorized as vulnerable and endangered, respectively. Continued loss of sea ice is one of the reasons for this gull’s decline. They rely on thick, concentrated ice for successful breeding and feed on finfish and shellfish that live close to the surface of the ice.
Like so many other arctic creatures from fish to polar bears, sea lions are considered endangered due to the gradual disappearance of sea ice. As melting ice leads to rising sea levels, sea lions are left with fewer places to breed, whether on ice or on beaches. Less land area amid the oceans doesn’t bode well for sea lion pups, as they are more exposed to the elements and risk becoming separated from their mothers. As warming water alters fish habitats, sea lions also have to travel farther for food.
Native to Kauai mountain forests, the honeycreeper has become prey to malaria-ridden mosquitoes, which have become more abundant due to spiking temperatures. These mosquitoes are also impeding the bird’s geographic range, further driving their dive toward extinction. The 'akikiki is one of the most threatened species of honeycreeper, categorized as critically endangered.
Olive ridley turtle
Classified as vulnerable, the olive ridley is no different from any other aquatic turtle when it comes to climate change. As sea levels continue to creep up, this turtle's nesting areas become compromised and warmer sea surface temperatures can impinge on feeding grounds. And, again, the warmer the beaches become, the more female turtles will hatch, throwing sex ratios off kilter.
Honduran brook frog
As its name indicates, this tropical frog is native to the rainforests of Honduras. It's critically endangered due to storm interference with clear water streams, and it’s also threatened by water pollution and fires. Warming temperatures play a part in the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus, responsible for many amphibian deaths.
Found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, the bigeye tuna has begun to decline due to a reduction in phytoplankton—which is, in turn, due to warming ocean temperatures. Considering that phytoplankton plays a crucial role in oxygen production, it is no wonder this vulnerable tuna species has been struggling.
Southern rockhopper penguin
Named for their tendency to hop from rock to rock in the sub-Antarctic islands of Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, rockhoppers are threatened by warming sea-surface temperatures, which degrade their prey populations. These vulnerable seabirds have decreased by over 90% since the 1940s.
The sei whale is native to all non-tropical and non-polar oceans and seas. As is the case for many other marine animals, warming ocean waters are partly to blame for the sei’s endangered status; they tend to feed in cooler waters, so their feeding patterns may be at risk as ocean temperatures rise. Ocean acidification also comes into play, as it impacts the development of some of the whale’s food sources, such as small shellfish. This acidification can also lead to an increase in harmful algae blooms, which kickstart a vicious cycle—the sei whale's prey eat the toxic algae, so when the whale eats that prey, it becomes sick and potentially dies.
Williams bright-eyed frog
Classified as critically endangered, this frog lives at high altitudes in limited areas of Madagascar. Mountain-dwelling frogs such as these lay their eggs among moist leaf material in cloud forests. But as temperatures start to rise at higher altitudes, clouds are edging farther upward and leaves are drying up, leaving fewer nesting places for the frogs. They can migrate only so far up a mountain before they become stranded.
Sri Lankan elephant
The largest of the Asian elephant subspecies, Sri Lankans were once abundant in tropical and subtropical forests of the island southeast of India, but have been squeezed into smaller areas due to forest conversion and agricultural needs. Warming temperatures make water sources, which elephants need to function properly, scarce in dry seasons. These environmental factors, plus human hunters, contribute to the animal’s endangered status.
Yangtze finless porpoise
This critically endangered porpoise has had to endure dips in flood retention capacity and inadequate water supply in its native Yangtze River Basin in China. Scientists predict that the melting of glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, the source of the Yangtze River, will ultimately cause water sources to dwindle.
Orangutans are native to rainforests in the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. A couple of climatic factors play a role in the orangutan’s critically endangered status. Changing temperatures and rainfall patterns alter where these animals can find tree fruits and leaves vital to their diets. Plus, food scarcity leads to lower reproduction rates. Drier weather has caused more fires in Borneo, which has led to fragmentation of their habitat.
Taita Hills warty frog
This penguin is affected by several climatic factors: El Niño events lead to an influx of warm water, rising sea levels destroy its coastal nesting habitats, and ocean acidification harms creatures at all levels of the food chain, ultimately affecting penguins. All of these environmental alterations contribute to this penguin’s classification as an endangered species.
The largest animal on Earth, the blue whale populates oceans of southern Chile, the Gulf of California, and the Coral Triangle. The case of this marine giant is no different than that of many other sea creatures. Warming temperatures and the melting of Antarctic ice are diminishing krill populations, the blue whale’s main food source. The disappearance of ice leads to fewer ocean algae in warmer seasons and therefore less food for krill. These endangered whales are not only the largest, but also the loudest animal in the world; their calls can ramp up to 188 decibels.
Loggerheads can be found on beaches and oceans in coastal East Africa, the Gulf of California, the Mesoamerican Reef, and the Coral Triangle. Changing climate impacts these vulnerable loggerheads similarly to other sea turtle species. Rising ocean levels and extreme weather can limit sea turtle nesting grounds. Warmer temperatures are leading to more frequent female sea turtle births and generally impede on hatching rates. Finally, warmer waters alter ocean currents, on which sea turtles rely when they migrate.
These ivory giants spend most of their time on sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Increasing temperatures are melting sea ice, a vital part of the polar bear’s habitat and ability to survive. These bears carry out virtually all of their activities on ice, such as hunting, reproducing, and migrating. Plus, their diet consists mainly of ringed and bearded seals, who also rely on ice to thrive. Ice-melting opens new possibilities for oil and gas exploration—a further threat to polar bears.
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