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30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there

  • 30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there

    At no other time in human history has the natural world shifted so rapidly locally and globally. With climate change, species extinctions, and related destabilizing events and disasters, one of the most critical ways to support the recovery and health of people and the planet is by tracking natural ecosystems.

    Ecosystems are a particular suite of organisms that evolved with each other and their natural environment that, together, function in certain key and measurable ways. When parts of the living and/or physical system are degraded, those changes can be measured. These measurements offer immense value in knowing what areas need protection and help, and why.

    To highlight ecosystems at risk around the world, Stacker consulted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In addition to evaluating species through its main Red List, the IUCN compiles assessments of critical habitats on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. Thirty of these ecosystems are included in this story; we chose systems that were evaluated on a global level; for local assessment levels, we focused on ecosystems classified as endangered or worse. Of the 30 included, more than half—17 in all—are found in Australia. This is an important indicator of the rapidly deteriorating state of Australia’s natural world in the face of its recent, massive bushfires.

    The IUCN’s assessments, gathered from 2013 to 2019 and released in 2019, track “species, their interactions, and the ecological processes they depend on” to assess each ecosystem’s overall health. The risk of an ecosystem’s collapse is affected by measurable criteria like shrinking or limited species distributions, declines in environmental quality, and disturbances to natural biological processes.

    There are eight different categories of risk, with the top three in considered “under threat”: Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Least Concern, Data Deficient, Not Evaluated, and Collapsed.

    Keep reading to learn about 30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there.

    [Pictured: Daintree rainforest, Australia.]

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  • Aral Sea

    - Location: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
    - IUCN risk category: collapsed
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The Aral Sea is among the largest inland bodies of water in the world, but it has shrunk to almost a quarter its former size in just 50 years. Although people used its waters to irrigate its two main river deltas for 5,000 years in balance with this ecosystem, beginning in the mid-20th century, water extraction skyrocketed as people began to irrigate much more land, including the surrounding desert.

    The once rich and unique assemblages of native species of fish, birds, mammals, invertebrates, and plants, plummeted; the lake shrank and split into smaller lakes; the water and climate system of the region destabilized; and dust stirred up from the dried out seafloor is related to major human health problems in the area. Even the non-native species that once competed with the native species, have mostly died out as the region dries out, and the waters grow much saltier as freshwater supply has dropped off catastrophically.

    [Pictured: Aral Sea, Uzbekestan.]

  • Coorong lagoons and Murray Mouth inverse estuary

    - Location: Australia
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The coastal wetland of the Coorong lagoons and Murray Mouth is the only example of an inverse estuary in the world; it’s considered a region of international importance. The estuary is “inverse” because it is filled by mostly freshwater from Australia’s largest river (as opposed to mostly saltwater from the sea in a typical estuary). The lagoons contain an astonishing array of habitat and species diversity specific to the great diversity of ecosystem types—scientists have measured at least eight distinct ecosystem states for the Coorong. These range from freshwater to salty, to super salty; all of these support different species of fish, birds, seagrasses, invertebrates, and others.

    The area is considered endangered—to critically endangered—because there is so much water extraction, diversion, and development. Scientists have shown that with current land and water use, the area’s ecosystems are likely to collapse, and if climate change causes the area to dry out further, collapse is virtually unavoidable.

    [Pictured: Coorong lagoons, Australia.]

  • Gnarled mossy cloud forest, Lord Howe Island

    - Location: Australia
    - IUCN risk category: critically endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The gnarled mossy cloud forest of Lord Howe Island in the Pacific Ocean off the east coast of Australia is critically endangered for two main reasons: It’s tiny and exists only on two mountaintops, one island contains its unique ecosystem and climate change is impacting the cloud cover and rainfall that creates the physical conditions of the ecosystem.

    Another key issue is the non-native rats preying on native plant and tree species that exist only in the cloud forest. However, scientists say removing rats would allow recovery; its climate change that is a much larger concern since changes in rain and clouds will affect whether the mosses, plants, and trees there can grow at all.

    [Pictured: Cloud Forest, Lord Howe Island.]

  • Gonakier forests of Senegal river floodplain

    - Location: Senegal and Mauritania
    - IUCN risk category: critically endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The Gonakier Forests of the Senegal river floodplain in Australia exist solely because of the way the river’s floodplains interact with rainfall: normally the region experiences months’ long flood conditions each year. Only a certain suite of trees and other species can survive these prolonged flood conditions. The dominant tree species is called Acacia nilotica, known commonly as Gonakier.

    This unique situation historically meant that only a certain set of species could live and thrive in this unique forest, now considered to be critically endangered. Rainfall is changing as a result of climate change, and the extensive and rapid changes to water use have drastically cut the amount of water reaching these habitats. Further, people have cut many of the former Gonakier forests areas for agriculture and wood burning.

    [Pictured: Lapwing bird in Diawling National Park, Mauritania.]

  • Lake Burullus

    - Location: Egypt
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    Lake Burullus’ wetland ecosystem has been threatened by nutrient effluents, changes in land use, nearby agriculture, pollution, and surrounding development. Ninety-seven percent of the water coming into the lake is from untreated agricultural wastewater, upstream sewage, and discharge from fish farms, complicating efforts to protect the important wetland.

    [Pictured: Lake Burullus, Egypt.]

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  • Southern Benguela upwelling ecosystem

    - Location: South Africa
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    Upwelling is a vast oceanic region known to support a profound richness of life, thanks to a continual influx of nutrients, or “upwelling” ocean currents. The Southern Benguela upwelling ecosystem off the coast of South Africa has changed considerably since measurements began, in ways that show human impacts via fishing pressure on the most abundant fish stocks.

    For example, in the 1980s, according to ICES Journal of Marine Science, anchovy were more abundant than sardines, but that changed with fishing pressure. Dominant species changed again and again in response to fishing pressure, with jellyfish becoming the dominant species at times. Now the upwelling ecosystem is also impacted by climate change effects on ocean temperatures and currents, according to PLoS ONE.

    [Pictured: Cape Point, South Africa.]

  • Coolibah – Black Box woodlands

    - Location: Australia
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The Coolibah—Black Box Woodlands—is another unique Australian region, this one a mixed, forest-shrub-grassland. Eucalyptus coolabah is the most common tree and a defining species of this endangered ecosystem. The specific groups of trees, shrubs, and grasses that arise and establish in the many areas of the region depend on the rainfall and the flooding. This ecosystem has areas with standing water and tree hollows, which many species of animal and birds depend on. The region has changed profoundly with land and water use, climate change, and grazing by non-native animals like goats, rabbits, and other livestock. Historically the tree, shrub, and grass species of this ecosystem were extremely diverse and supported a diverse array of woodland and wetland species.

    [Pictured: Culgoa National Park, New South Wales, Australia.]

  • Giant kelp forests, Alaska

    - Location: United States of America
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The giant kelp forests of Alaska exist because of brown algae species of the Order Laminariales. These kelps can grow up to 15 meters tall. They look like enormous underwater wide-leaved plants, that create an underwater forest filled with a wide variety of creatures that depend on them. Sea urchins, starfish, sea otters, sea lions, Pacific cod, and fur seals, are among the many creatures that depend on this unique ecosystem.

    The kelp forests are endangered because of a disruption in the food web. Sea urchins normally eat the algae but urchins now have far less predation pressure from sea otters. Urchins now create kelp “barrens.” Sea otter populations have dropped as a result of killer whale predation. Killer whales formerly hunted for great whales, but have switched to sea otter as prey since whale populations fell precipitously in response to human hunting. The ecosystem also requires very cold seawater, and as sea temperatures change with climate change, this also impacts kelp forests.

    [Pictured: Glacier Bay, Alaska.]

  • Tapia forest

    - Location: Madagascar
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    Tapia forest occurs only on the island of Madagascar and contains a unique suite of tree, plant, and animal species. Some of the tree species are resistant to fire, as this is a fairly dry, high elevation ecosystem that is prone to wildfire, and some plant species are found nowhere else but here.

    Tapia trees themselves are important to the local Madagascar people as their fruits are high in vitamin C and they are hosts to silkworms, which local people use to make silk. However, people also use the trees to make charcoal, for firewood, and to build structures leading to the forest changing into grasslands. Other pressures are grazing domestic livestock and shifts to the fire regime with human and climate impacts.

    [Pictured: Central Highlands, Madagascar.]

  • Tidal flats of the Yellow Sea

    - Location: China, North Korea and South Korea
    - IUCN risk category: endangered
    - Assessment level: global
    - Full assessment

    The Yellow Sea in 2014 had already had a 28% reduction in tidal flats over 30 years, according to reporting from NASA. Tidal flats are essential for preventing flooding on land and mitigating storm surges.

    [Pictured: Tidal Flats, Yellow Sea, South Korea.]

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