Animals Most Endangered by Global Warming

Some of our favorite animals are already victims of climate change.

Global warming, conceptual image
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No matter your position on the issue—whether global warming is aggravated by the burning of fossil fuels (the position of the vast majority of the world's scientists) or an unavoidable environmental trend that's completely unaffected by human behavior—the fact is that our world is gradually, and inexorably, heating up. We can't even begin to imagine the effect rising global temperatures will have on human civilization, but we can see for ourselves, right now, how it impacts some of our favorite animals.

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The Emperor Penguin

emperor penguins on parade
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Hollywood's favorite flightless bird—witness ​March of the Penguins and Happy Feet—the emperor penguin is nowhere near as joyful and carefree as depicted in the movies. The fact is that this Antarctic-dwelling penguin is unusually susceptible to climate change, and populations can be decimated by even slight warming trends. If global warming continues at its current pace, experts warn that the emperor penguin could lose up to 80% of its population by the year 2100—and from there it would be just a slippery slide into total extinction.

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The Ringed Seal

ringed seal
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The ringed seal is not currently endangered; while no accurate estimate exists, there are believed to be about 300,000 individuals in Alaska alone and probably more than 2 million indigenous to the world's Arctic regions. The problem is that these seals nest and breed on pack ice and ice floes, precisely the habitats most at risk from global warming, and they're one of the main sources of food both for already-endangered polar bears and indigenous humans. On the other end of the food chain, ringed seals subsist on various Arctic fish and crustaceans; it's unknown what the knock-on effects might be if the population of this mammal gradually (or suddenly) plummeted.

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The Arctic Fox

arctic fox
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True to its name, the Arctic fox can survive temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). What it can't survive is competition from red foxes, which have been gradually migrating northward as Arctic temperatures moderate in the wake of global warming. With decreasing snow cover, the arctic fox can't rely on its winter coat of white fur for camouflage, so red foxes find it increasingly easy to locate and kill their competition. (Normally red fox numbers could be kept in check by, among other predators, the gray wolf, but this larger canid was hunted to near-total extinction by humans, which has allowed red fox populations to surge.)

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The Beluga Whale

beluga whale
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Unlike the other animals on this list, the beluga whale isn't all that negatively impacted by global warming (or at least, it isn't any more vulnerable to global warming than any other sea-dwelling mammal). Rather, warming global temperatures have made it easier for well-meaning tourists to flock to Arctic waters on whale-watching expeditions, and the ambient noise of engines can jam their ability to communicate, navigate, and detect prey or approaching threats.

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The Orange Clownfish

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Here's where global warming gets real: can it really be that Nemo the clownfish is on the verge of extinction? Well, the sad fact is that coral reefs are especially susceptible to rising ocean temperatures and acidification, and the sea anemones that sprout from these reefs make ideal homes for clownfish, shielding them from predators. As coral reefs bleach and decay, anemones dwindle in number, and so do the populations of orange clownfish. (Adding insult to injury, the worldwide success of Finding Nemo and Finding Dory could have contributed to the amount of aquarium sales of orange clownfish, which further decreases its numbers.)

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The Koala

koala in a tree
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The koala subsists almost exclusively on the leaves of the eucalyptus tree, and this tree is extremely sensitive to temperature change and drought: the 100 or so species of eucalyptus grow very slowly, and they disperse their seeds within a very narrow range, making it difficult for them to extend their habitat and avoid disaster. And as the eucalyptus tree goes, so goes the koala.

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The Leatherback Turtle

leatherback turtle
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Leatherback turtles lay their eggs on specific beaches, to which they return every three or four years to repeat the ritual. But as global warming accelerates, a beach that was used one year may not exist a few years later—and even if it's still around, increases in temperature can wreak havoc on the leatherback turtle's genetic diversity. Specifically, leatherback turtle eggs that incubate in warmer conditions tend to hatch females, and a surplus of females at the expense of males has a deleterious effect on this species' genetic makeup, making future populations more susceptible to disease or further destructive changes in their environment.

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The Flamingo

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Flamingos are impacted by global warming in a number of ways. First, these birds prefer to mate during the rainy season, so prolonged periods of drought can adversely affect their survival rates; and second, the restriction of their habitats has been driving these birds into regions where they're more susceptible to prey animals like coyotes and pythons. Finally, since, flamingos tend to derive their pink coloration from carotenoids found in the shrimp that they eat, plunging shrimp populations can potentially turn these famously pink birds white.

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The Wolverine

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Wolverine, the superhero, wouldn't have to think twice about global warming; wolverines, the animals, aren't quite so lucky. These carnivorous mammals, which are actually more closely related to weasels than they are to wolves, prefer to nest and wean their young in the springtime snows of the northern hemisphere, so a short winter, followed by an early thaw, can have devastating consequences. Also, it's estimated that some male wolverines have a "home range" of up to 250 square miles, meaning that any restriction in this animal's territory (due to global warming or human encroachment) adversely affects its populations.

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The Musk Ox

musk ox
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We know from the fossil evidence that 12,000 years ago, shortly after the last Ice Age, the world's population of muskoxen plummeted. Now the trend seems to be repeating itself: surviving populations of these large, shaggy bovids, concentrated around the Arctic circle, are once again diminishing due to global warming. Not only has climate change restricted the musk ox's territory, but it has also facilitated the northward migration of grizzly bears, which will take on muskoxen if they're especially desperate and hungry. Today, there are only about 100,000 living muskoxen, most of them on Banks Island in northern Canada.

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The Polar Bear

polar bear
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Last but not least, we come to the poster animal for global warming: the handsome, charismatic, but extremely dangerous polar bear. Ursus maritimus spends most of its time on the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean, hunting for seals and penguins, and as these platforms diminish in number and move farther apart the polar bear's daily routine becomes increasingly precarious (we won't even mention the diminution of its accustomed prey, due to the same environmental pressures). According to one 2020 study, high levels of greenhouse gas emissions paired with declining reproduction and survival rates could lead to the disappearance of all but a few high-Arctic subpopulations by 2100.

View Article Sources
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