Last week we looked at animals who are officially listed as being under severe threat of extinction because of loss of habitat, conflict with encroaching human populations, questionably legal wanton killing, and illegal poaching. This week we look at 10 of the many animals threatened by extinction because of climate change.
Keep in mind that some animal species have been at the brink of complete extinction in the past several decades and have been brought back from the brink by targeted action and continued vigilance. The closure of the whaling industry and subsequent return of some species of whales to a healthy population is one such example (with the exception of continued Japanese whaling, although until recently they’ve called it “research”). We need to hope that similar efforts can turn around the vulnerability of the animals now under threat.
Polar bears. My personal favourite animal, along with the tiger. We all know that the polar bear, classified as a marine mammal because they do all their hunting at sea, is under extreme threat because the sea ice on which they live and hunt is rapidly melting away due to the severe warming of the Polar Regions. The Polar Regions are the canary in the coal mine for climate change; they warm faster than anywhere else on earth, and once the sea ice is gone and no longer reflecting the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere the Arctic Ocean and Antarctic Ocean can absorb heat that much faster. It’s a disaster.
Ringed seals. Another Arctic animal, ringed seals are the favourite meal of polar bears. Ringed seals live and breed solely on sea ice, which is rapidly shrinking. Baby seals are being separated from their mothers on shrinking ice floes. Parasites that affect the health of seals and the fish they feed on are expected to increase as the waters warm. One calamity on top of another.
Koalas. We all have been made aware of the plight of koalas in Australia during the horrifying bushfires that spanned months in 2019-early 2020. It has been estimated that fully one billion animals were killed by these bushfires, including several already endangered species such as koalas. Koalas are particularly vulnerable because they are very fussy eaters – they only eat Eucalyptus leaves. Sadly, eucalyptus leaves provide less nutrition than they used to because of the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. And when devastating bushfires hit, the koalas have nowhere to hide, unlike some animals that can burrow.
Leatherback sea turtles. The granddaddy of all sea turtles, the Leatherback is a giant, weighing as much as half a ton. Leatherbacks are already threatened by poaching and ocean pollution, but climate change is now adding to their vulnerability. Rising sea levels wash away nests and nesting habitat, as does the increase in extreme weather patterns. As well, the gender of developing egg is affected by sand temperature and as the sands get warmer the number of female turtles is likely to greatly outnumber the number of male turtles born. None of these issues bode well for the survival of Leatherbacks.
Adélie penguins. The Adélie penguins are the cute little penguins that inhabit parts of the Antarctic and have done so since time immemorial. But now their well-establishing colonies are diminishing due to rising seas that are washing away nesting grounds and warming seas that are having a negative impact on the krill and fish on which they feed.
The Atlantic Cod. Wow, who would have thought that the Cod could become an endangered species?! The Cod is the fish, so plentiful in the waters of the North Atlantic, that drew fishermen from Europe across the rough seas and frigid waters in scary fishing boats – in pre-motorized days – for hundreds of years to fish with abandon for the infinitely plentiful cod. This was the draw – and surely the only draw – of Greenland and Newfoundland in those days. There was no way that the oceans would run out of cod. Never. Of course, overfishing has made its mark, just as overfishing, overcutting, and over-everything-else has made its mark on all the resources of the planet. But now it’s climate change. The warming waters of the North Atlantic are not what the cod signed on for. Juvenile cod in particular are at increased risk of survival.
The Monarch Butterfly. Most people know about the remarkable migratory pattern of the Monarchs, who famously winter in Mexico in the gazillions, then make their way back to their summer homes further north in the U.S. and Canada. These beautiful, paper-thin creatures fly up to 100 miles a day to travel the up to 3000 miles to their destination. Figure that one out. But they eat mostly milkweed. And milkweed is struggling with the increased heat and dryness, leaving its leaves more toxic to the butterflies. And as their breeding grounds change with the changing climate, the distances they have to travel as they move further north in Canada will have detrimental effects as well. Their ability to adapt to these changes remains unknown but the new and unanticipated changes to locations of wintering and breeding sites have been observed with alarm.
African elephant. African elephants aren’t on every list as being endangered because of climate change. However, the reason elephants are on some lists remind us of another critical world resource that is at heightened risk because of climate change: water. Climate change is already exacerbating the availability of fresh water, and serious water shortages will become far more pronounced in many parts of the world as climate change intensifies. These water shortages will impact the ability of many parts of the world to continue to produce enough food to feed themselves; that’s what the term “climate refugee” is all about. And African elephants need 40-60 gallons of fresh water a day!
Coral reefs. We don’t always think about ocean coral as being an animal, but it is. Coral reefs are vital to the health of our oceans … and they are dying. Staghorn coral is particularly at risk. A full 80% of the world’s staghorn coral population has been killed off in the past 30 years, first by ocean pollution and damage, and then by warming seas, bringing bleaching and disease. If staghorn corals and other corals die off, their loss will be devastating. They provide complex habitat for fish and other coral reef organisms, and can provide shoreline protections from large waves and storms.
Cheetahs. The African cheetah is known as the fastest animal on the planet and its population is in rapid decline due to climate change. In some areas, the cheetahs’ food sources (aka their prey) are declining, and as a result, the cheetahs have been challenged with finding enough prey to eat. Also, the warming atmosphere has even affected the cheetah’s ability to reproduce. Male cheetahs have shown lowered testosterone levels, and a sperm count almost ten times lower than your house cat!
Ten amazing animal species that shouldn’t be at risk, but they are.
More Wildlife Wednesday posts:
Whose national animals are these? Feb 12/20
Some answers and some new animals. Feb 19/20
One more chance to learn about national animals. Feb 26/20
Shining a light on endangered animals around the world. Mar 4/20