What Animals Can Tell Us About Global Warming

Wildlife — By Stephanie on January 30, 2010 at 6:23 am
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Arctic Fox at risk (image from Billyboy on Flickr)

The polar bear may be the poster child for global warming, but if we pay attention, there are a number of animals that are trying to warn us about the perils of climate change.  Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a report at the Copenhagen climate change conference listing 10 “flagship species” that will be particularly affected by environmental and habitat changes.

The impact of melting sea ice, eroding beaches and simply warmer temperatures has a ripple effect, spreading outwards and affecting more species and their habitats, at an alarming rate.  We don’t need Dr. Dolittle to “talk to the animals,” but we can certainly respond to the signals these species are sending… before its too late!

1.  Arctic fox. Like the polar bear, the Arctic fox depends on frozen tundra, snow and ice for its survival.  With shrinking ice packs, and the disturbing estimate that polar summer ice could completely vanish in the Arctic by 2040, one hopes that 30 years is enough time to turn things around.

2.  Leatherback sea turtles.  Unfortunately, these gentle giants are threatened by dual environmental forces.  Over-hunting and becoming entangled in fishermen’s nets kill thousands of sea turtles each year.  Global warming plays an equally destructive role with beaches eroding away due to severe storms, and the sands in which the turtles lay their eggs literally becoming too warm for healthy development of baby turtles.

3.  Staghorn Coral.  We’ve previously explored the environmental impacts of rising sea temperatures and absorption of greenhouse gases on coral reefs.  Coral bleaching occurs when conditions lead to the decline of the corals’ symbiotic algae, which results in a pale, dying reef.  Staghorn Coral is currently one of the most threatened species of coral.

4. Clownfish.  With the decline of coral reefs (some estimate that more than half of the world’s coral reefs will vanish in the next 20 years), the fish that depend on their cover could be left homeless.  The Clownfish – famously depicted in Disney’s “Finding Nemo” – is one flagship species under watch by the IUCN.

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The Clownfish is losing its coral reef home (image from brian.gratwicke on Flickr)

5. Ringed Seal.  Although the Ringed Seal is not considered an endangered animal, it is only because its are a highly adaptable species.  In fact, Charles Darwin would likely be quite impressed by the fact that the Ringed Seal is still the most common seal in the Arctic, despite significant habitat changes in recent decades.  However, one of the authors of the IUCN study, Wendy Foden, cautioned:

“They can adapt—it’s a question of whether climate change is slow enough for them to adapt.”

6. Emperor Penguins.  Along with the Arctic Fox and the Ringed Seal, Emperor Penguins are literally feeling the heat from shrinking ice and snow cover, albeit on the opposite pole.  The Antarctic, like the Arctic region, is affected by melting ice and snow, which threatens the penguins’ habitat.  Emperor penguins breed almost exclusively on pack ice, with only a very small number that have ever breed on land.  In addition, icebergs and ice cliffs form protective barriers for the breeding colonies.  Without them, the chances of survival diminish.

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Emperor Penguin and Baby (image from Martha de Jong-Lantik on Flickr)

7. Beluga Whale.  The Beluga Whale has been in severe decline in waters off the coast of Alaska, and has been listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Sadly, the listing has done little to help its numbers.  In just 15 years, the population in the Cook Inlet has decreased nearly 50% from 653 to 375 whales.  A number of factors have contributed to the Belugas’ decline, from hunting to noise pollution and strikes by shipping vessels.  Changes in the temperature of Arctic waters affect not only the whales’ habitat, but its food supply.

8. Koalas.  The icon of Australia, Koalas are among the animals most affected by global warming.  With rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, eucalyptus plants produce fewer leaves, which are lower in protein and also filled with poor-tasting tannins.  Because Koalas live exclusively on eucalyptus leaves, their survival is directly connected to the health of the plants.  In recent years, the marsupials have had to consume greater amounts of eucalyptus to prevent starving to death.

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Koalas depend on Eucalyptus for survival (image from mgjefferies on Flickr)

9.   Salmon.  One of my friends noted – somewhat ironically – that salmon is the only threatened species you can buy for consumption at the grocery store.  Laugh or cringe, if you will, but maybe this fact will have you sit up and take notice.  Perhaps when climate change hits our own dinner plate, we can finally accept the reality of the situation.  The reason why the scientists chose Salmon as a flagship species is because its home streams have been experiencing changes in flow rate due to earlier snow melt.  In other words, we’ll be able to witness the impact of a rise in a few degrees in temperature relatively quickly when it comes to these spawning fish.

10.  Polar Bear.  Of course, no story about animals and global warming would be complete without a nod to the Polar Bear.  Need we say more?  This WWF advertisement says more in 2 minutes than we could convey in 20 posts:

So, are we going to listen to the animals to hear what they are telling us about global warming?

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference ended with disappointing results.  If we allow the CO2 levels to rise to 650 ppm (parts per million) by 2100, we can expect an average rise in temperature of 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C).  The authors of the IUCN study note that such a result would “equal extinction for essentially all of these species, plus thousands of others.”

Its up to us to be the voice of these and many other species.  We don’t have to accept this result!  Continue to put pressure on your elected officials.  Live a greener lifestyle.  Support organizations like the WWF and the IUCN.

What else are you doing to ensure the survival of these and other animals?

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  1. Maurice H Rich says:

    Koalas are suffering significantly more from disease & urban encroachment than they are from problems with availability of Eucalyptus Trees.

  2. Eileen says:

    Yes Maurice, only yesterday I was reading about Aids in Koala bears!!!! Now THAT does my mind in!! As well as urban encroachment. Eucalyptus are an invasive species in Spain as they are not indigenous trees and are planted to substitute what has been removed. Maybe we should move the koalas over here. Wonder how that would upset our environmental balance!!

  3. Greenpacks says:

    OMG that Arctic Fox looks sooooo cute

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