According to NASA, climate change has been causing rising temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts, stronger hurricanes, rising sea levels, and the Arctic losing its ice. These changes are dramatically affecting ecosystems and thus the habitat of the wildlife within them. These ecosystems are rapidly transforming after animals have spent millions of years adapting to them properly. Species can sometimes survive the habitat disruptions and move to new spaces to thrive, but much of the area that they could move to has already been claimed by the human population in the form of residential and industrial development. So, not only have humans caused the initial disruption for these creatures, we have also limited their second chance of survival. With that said, we have a responsibility to protect animals and their habitats against the devastation that we caused.
Polar bears are arguably the most talked about animal when it comes to the effects of climate change, but they are not the only animals being affected. Here is a list of 5 other animals and their experiences due to climate change.
Seals are being threatened by reduced snowfall and receding ice. Harp seals require stable ice to give birth and nurse their pups, but due to the lack of ice forming and its increased disappearance, there is a big threat to the species. If there is no option for stable ice, a seal may give birth in the water instead, which causes the pups to die. Even if the seal is able to give birth on the ice, if the ice is not strong enough to withstand wind and waves, the nursing pups may get separated from their mothers and crushed by the breaking ice. Not only that, but if there is no ice for pups to rest on during their annual migration to northern feeding grounds, they may die from exhaustion.
They are also being threatened by brutal poaching. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, in 2010, 90% of harp seal pups born in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are thought to have died because of the disappearance of ice. However, Canada allowed for the continuation of commercial seal hunt, even with the seal pups deaths occurring before the hunt began.
2. Snowshoe Hares
Thanks to evolution, this North American rabbit has been able to stay camouflaged in its environment by molting from brown to white to brown again. Snowshoe hares can hide from predators in the winter by having their fur turn white and blend in with the snow. However, due to climate change, snow is melting faster, which means that their continued white fur makes them stand out to predators such as the lynx and coyote. These animals can’t control when they change color, so what will happen during the period when they don’t match their background? Scientists suspect that the mismatch would be disastrous for the animals in the long run. In a study done by Marketa Zimova of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and colleagues, data was used to understand the cost of this mismatch. A snowshoe hare that matches its background has a 96% chance of surviving from week to week, but the rate drops to 92% if 60% of their fur doesn’t match. They have an 89% chance of surviving when they don’t match at all. The numbers don’t seem like a huge threat to the species, however, the probability will decrease as the weeks go on. So, as winter keeps getting delayed and spring keeps coming earlier, the mismatched periods will keep increasing. By 2100, the study predicted that the snowshoe hares could be living with 8 weeks of mismatch, which would lead to a steep decline in the population. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a decline of this species would have a big impact, as they are critical to their forest ecosystems. However, one thing that is important to note is that researchers think snowshoe hairs might have enough genetic variability that would allow for the evolution of the timing of molting to keep up with the effects of climate change. Individual hares might also be able to change the time they molt from white back to brown to adapt to changes in snow cover. Still, scientists can’t be sure if these two possibilities would even be enough to save the population.
Rising temperatures and an increase in parasite populations are the main causes of trouble for moose, a cold-weather species found in northern United States and Canada. Rising temperatures lead to milder winters, which drives moose farther north. Scientists speculate that moose are being plagued by parasites and new diseases. There has been an increase in the population of winter ticks and brain worm that thrive and populate in the warmer weather. Furthermore, species like the white-tailed deer are moving north to the moose’s territory, who carry the brain worm and winter ticks as well. A single moose can have tens of thousands of ticks feeding on its blood, which weakens its immune system and often leads to death- especially among the young. In Maine, according to an article published in Scientific American, more than 50% of calves are not surviving past their first year. In northeastern Minnesota, it’s almost 90% of calves. In the northwestern part of Minnesota, the moose population is completely extinct. However, the rising temperatures and shorter winters in Alaska have helped the moose population, as they can adapt and survive there after migrating to this territory. The negative part is that they are encroaching on the existing inhabitants of the northward territory. Moose have become almost an invasive species that will effect other wildlife like caribou.
4. American Pikas
The American pika is a herbivorous, relative of rabbits and hares, close to the size of a hamster. They usually live at high elevations with cool, moist conditions, like the mountains of western North America. However, research by the US Geological Survey shows that its populations are disappearing from numerous areas, due to some migration to higher elevations in order to avoid the warmer temperatures and less snow on the ground. Pikas rely on a habitat of slopes made of rock debris, but this type of habitat is not common, so as temperatures continue to rise, their options will only become slimmer. Pikas can die from overheating from temperatures pleasant for humans, over 77 degrees Fahrenheit, after only a few hours due to their thick, insulating coats. According to Erik Beever’s 2003 survey led by the US Geological Survey, over the past century, about 25% of pika populations in the Great Basis, which ranges from California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to Utah’s Wasatch range, has gone extinct locally. Beever published another study in August 2016 that showed that number jump to 45%. The study also showed how declining pika populations are not restricted to the Great Basin, it includes parts of Utah and California as well. 40% of the population is gone from northern California. In Utah, there are no more pikas in Zion National Park, and can no longer be found in 75% of their usual habitat in Cedar Breaks National Monument. This species, however, has been denied the protection of the Endangered Species Act. “The Service’s recent denial of protection to the pika once again ignores the science showing it is in danger, and ensures that these beautiful animals will continue to vanish from our western mountains,” says Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, to the Huffington Post. However, advocates for the pika are working hard to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect pikas under the Endangered Species Act.
5. Sea Turtles
Sea turtles are one of the species most at risk from climate change, according to Patrick Barkham from The Guardian. Sea turtles rely on beaches to lay their eggs, but rising sea levels and storms are destroying these beaches. Not only that, but the sand has become hotter, and scientists through a study published in Nature Climate Change have found that hotter sands cause the likelihood of sea turtles being born female. Gender of sea turtle offspring is not caused by sex chromosomes like humans, rather it’s the temperature of the sand where the eggs are buried. So, if the sand becomes too warm, the sea turtle population could become only female, or nest failure, which would lead to the species’ extinction. A study published by the same scientific journal examined the loggerhead turtles of Cape Verde in the Atlantic, and saw that the sand could actually become so warm in the next 150 years that the species becomes extinct.
If this topic interests you and you would like to learn more, you can watch this TED-Ed video by Erin Eastwood titled “Can wildlife adapt to climate change?”