The Impact of Climate Change on Animals

The Eco Experts

The Impact of Climate Change on Animals

two walrus sitting on melting ice

By 13 min read


Climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet. In all corners of the world, we’re seeing homes being wiped away by floods, livelihoods turned into rubble by ferocious hurricanes, and towns dusted over by draughts.

We’re also witnessing the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaur age. In fact, currently, more than 35,500 species are threatened with extinction – that’s 28% of all species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But how are these animals being impacted by climate change, and which animals are in the most trouble? Find out below.

two wild African donkeys

Methodology

 

We share the planet with a lot of animals. So, rather than analysing each and every species, we’ve referred to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which monitors endangered animals around the world.

We focused on populations that are decreasing because of changing climate and weather conditions, then narrowed it down to either endangered or critically endangered species – in other words, the animals most at risk of extinction.

Before conducting our research, we hadn’t anticipated just how much destructive human activity – such as poaching and the wildlife trade – is pushing species towards extinction.

Overview: What are the key things impacting animals?

 

Today’s extinction rate is estimated to be hundreds, or even thousands of times higher than the natural baseline rate. This is the result of humans burning fossil fuels and releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere, which is altering climate patterns.

Below, you can see the percentage of animals that are currently threatened with extinction.

But what’s affecting them?

  • Rising sea levels – Increased water in our oceans – the result of melting ice caps – is causing destructive erosion on coastlines, wetland flooding, agricultural soil contamination, and habitat loss. Plus, the more water we have in our oceans, the more will eventually evaporate into the atmosphere, – therefore generating more storms. And, perhaps most worryingly, rising sea levels are slowing down currents that animals rely on – disrupting natural breeding and feeding patterns.
  • Change in weather – With rising sea levels comes more storms, hurricanes, and typhoons. These storms not only destroy towns and cities, but precious ecosystems too. Draughts are also becoming increasingly common, leaving animals struggling to eat and drink. In fact, the Sahara Desert, the world’s largest desert, has grown by 10% since 1920.
  • Decreasing biodiversity – Ecosystems are vulnerable to a domino effect – once one species becomes extinct, other populations start falling. Even a dip in the population of the smallest animal in the sea – phytoplankton – can impact the largest of mammals in the ocean.
  • Human activity – As our population grows and our consumption rate soars, we’re impacting animals at a rate never before seen. Destroying ecosystems for materials, encroaching on habitats, pumping out more CO2 into the atmosphere, and dumping waste in the oceans are just some of our offences.

Breakdown of how global warming will affect animals

Europe

European Eel

Status: Critically endangered

Nicknamed “glass eels” because of their transparent bodies, European Eels are on the brink of extinction thanks to sudden changes in European weather patterns warming the sea.

Warming waters are having a detrimental effect on breeding sites. A study recently found that, when placed in warmer water, fewer young eels survived, but those that did were more active and appeared more willing to continue their migration. This study was an attempt to mimic the environments expected by the end of the century as a result of climate change.

Those that do survive are usually poisoned by water pollution – damaging the eels’ respiratory system, tissues, and organs. Loss of habitat is another factor impacting this fish, with local land development, flood control, and water-level management destroying freshwater habitats.

 

Common Hamster

Status: Critically endangered

Scientists are warning that a sudden change in climate and an increase in light pollution means these small but mighty furballs could be gone in the next 30 years.

Historically, these hamsters are fast reproducers – arriving into the world after 18-day pregnancies and only living for about two years. However, recent analysis by the IUCN Red List revealed there has been a global decrease in the number of litters, embryos, and newborns amongst the Common Hamster population – moving forward, populations might shrink by 50% each year.

Although there is no clear-cut answer as to why this is happening, many point towards climate change and light pollution. Not only does light pollution affect the physiology of the species, but the IUCN also found that exposure to light during only two winter nights, when it’s naturally supposed to be darker, shifted the Common Hamsters’ reproductive phase by 3-4 weeks.

Many also blame the effects of climate change on the Hamsters’ reduced body mass when emerging from hibernation, which has decreased by 20% in the last 70 years.

Asia

Kurdistan Newt

Status: Critically endangered

For this yellow-spotted amphibian, its near-extinction boils down to one key threat: droughts. As an animal that relies on wetland ecosystems, newts of all kinds are struggling now more than ever, as the planet’s temperature gradually creeps up.

The Kurdistan Newt, in particular, is suffering from massively prolonged dry periods. Isa Kalantari, the head of Iran’s Department of Environment, stated in 2019: “We are using tankers to supply water to the region. The entire biodiversity of central Zagros is in danger. Many plants and animals will die if we do not protect the marshes and grasslands.”

 

Northern River Terrapin

Status: Critically endangered

As the world’s second-most endangered turtle, with fewer than 50 adults in captive collections across the globe, the Northern River Terrapin is walking a dangerous path towards extinction.

Whilst many turtles are threatened by the ‘shell trade’, this species is here (mainly) because of habitat degradation. Drawn to estuaries, mangrove areas, and sandy beaches, the terrapin’s homes are all changing due to local human activity and climate change.

 

Karunarathna Shrub Frog

Status: Critically endangered

Amphibians are one of the groups most susceptible to climate change since they develop in aquatic environments, which are rapidly depleting. Plus, the Karunarathna Shrub Frog is only found in Sri Lanka, where the temperature is creeping up and habitats are being scaled back.

Each year, millions of visitors visit Sripada Peak, which sits in Peak Wilderness Nature Reserve, especially during the six-month-long peak tourism season. And, where humans go, pollution follows. For these six months, large amounts of litter are scattered around the nature reserve, light pollution illuminates the island, and the forest is exploited for materials more than usual.

Habitat loss is also a key threat for this shrub frog. Prior to 2013, forest ‘dieback’ (a condition in trees or woody plants, in which peripheral parts are killed) was never documented in this region. Shamefully, it’s a different story today.

 

Asian Elephant

Status: Endangered

These elegant giants are particularly vulnerable to climate change, due to their sensitivity to high temperatures, a declining population size, and invasive plant species competing for food.

Unlike some other species, Asian Elephants’ slow reproductive rate and long lifetime mean they’re unable to adapt to change quickly. But their main weakness in this new climate? Their need for high amounts of freshwater. 

If elephants aren’t able to drink enough water, it has a knock-on effect on their daily activities, as well as reproduction and migration. This means that, in an increasingly warm world, Asian Elephants are fast approaching extinction.

Africa

African Wild Ass

Status: Critically endangered

Living in one of the harshest terrains in the world, the major threat to the African Wild Ass is limited access to drinking water and food. The desert habitat in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, where these animals originate from, suffers from extreme droughts throughout the year – conditions that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

As a grazer, the African Wild Ass also faces huge competition for food, with an estimated 600 head of livestock utilising the Messir Plateau (in Eritrea) daily during the wet season for 3–4 months.

It’s thought that there are less than 50 adult African Wild Asses left in the world – and if things continue this way, there is a 50% likelihood of extinction within three generations.

 

White-Bellied Pangolin

Status: Endangered

White-Bellied Pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and, increasingly, Africa. Besides this, the second-largest threat to these scaly mammals is loss of habitat.

In 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to many precious pangolins, experienced the second-highest loss of tropical primary forest in the world.

What’s more, climate change models predict that sun-baked areas of Africa are only set to become hotter and drier – if pangolins or their prey are not able to adapt to these changes, they will face the very real risk of extinction.

 

African Penguin

Status: Endangered

The population of African Penguins has declined over 95% since pre-industrial times – and if climate change trends continue, the species could go extinct by 2026.

Before climate change, African Penguin fledgelings travelled to areas of low sea surface temperatures to hunt for food. Historically, this was a reliable cue for fish availability. Now, however, these penguins are facing food scarcity from warming ocean temperatures, which are causing fish to move away from their normal ranges.

Antarctica

Antipodean Albatross

Status: Endangered

Warming seas means food is scarce for Albatross. These regal birds now need to travel further to get a catch – far beyond their known foraging range.

Not only is the lack of food impacting the health of Albatross and their young, but it’s now putting them in harm’s way with local fisheries. Venturing to the coast of South America, Albatross are now in prime position to be caught by fishing vessels, resulting in increased ‘bycatch mortality’.

 

Southern Rockhopper Penguin

Status: Endangered

Sadly, there are numerous climatic factors impacting Southern Rockhopper Penguins. Scientists believe that warmer conditions in the Falklands have delayed the breeding season for the species – potentially leading to failed breeding success.

The change in local temperature has also altered the habits of local fish, encouraging them to travel to colder waters or areas with more food. This means penguins now need to travel much further to feed their young. This is especially lethal since these peppy penguins are extremely sensitive to ocean temperatures – so much so that colder temperatures often cause their muscles to seize up.

Oceania

Northern Royal Albatross

Status: Endangered

Extreme weather events have had severe impacts on the population of Northern Royal Albatross over the years. In 1985, a cyclonic storm hit breeding sites on the Chatham Islands (part of New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands), which has reduced the percentage of nests producing fledgelings to as low as 3% in some years. And, with weather patterns changing more frequently, this is only set to become more prevalent.

Similar to other animals on this list, Northern Royal Albatross have slow reproduction rates, as they usually stick with one partner for the duration of their lifetime. Changes in habitat, climate, and some fishing practices make these ‘ocean wanderers’ extremely vulnerable, too.

 

Leaf-Scaled Sea Snake

Status: Critically endangered

In the 1990s, Leaf-Scaled Sea Snakes used to have a population of roughly 4,000-9,000. Now, however, it’s a very different story. In fact, it was widely believed that the species was extinct until December 2015, when 16 individuals were discovered off the coast of Western Australia.

Many scientists suggest this animal’s population is falling because of habitat destruction and food shortages. Increased ocean temperatures are triggering ‘coral bleaching’ – a process whereby corals expel the algae that usually provide themselves with food. This is leaving coastlines resembling a graveyard of skeleton-like corals.

While coral can live short-term with the effects caused by bleaching, it’s the animals that live in the ecosystem that suffer the most from this. Like an integral cog in a clock, once corals start to bleach, animals further up the food chain also begin to die out.

 

Grey Reef Shark

Status: Critically endangered

Similar to sea snakes, Grey Reef Sharks rely on coral ecosystems for food. And, while some sharks are highly mobile and able to adapt to change, Grey Reef Sharks are site-attached species which depend on coral reefs.

Therefore, these large-scale coral bleaching events are reducing the food for Grey Reef Sharks to feast on. Unfortunately, almost all warm-water coral reefs are projected to suffer significant losses, even if global warming is limited to 1.5ºC.

Destructive fishing practices in some nations, along with declining water quality, have also led to the decline in Grey Reef Sharks.

 

Australian Sea Lion

Status: Critically endangered

The Australian Sea Lion has never fully recovered from the impact of19th-century commercial sealing. Despite being a protected species now, their numbers are estimated to have fallen by more than 50% over the past 40 years.

With more than 80% of these animals living in the coastal waters of South Australia, the sea lions’ survival is threatened by changing weather, habitat degradation, bycatch in commercial fisheries, and entanglement in marine debris.

Similar to other animals on this list, sea lions are slow reproducers, with a female giving birth only once every 18 months. Typically, there are fewer than 25 sea lion pups produced annually.

Americas

American Eel

Status: Critically endangered

Availability of food has taken a hit in recent years, thanks to sudden environmental changes in this species’ habitat. This is triggering mass population decline not only in the American Eel, but for European and Japanese Eels too.

Changes in oceanic currents also play a role in the deterioration of this incredible creature. As sea levels rise and temperatures increase, water becomes stagnant in some places, and currents become still. This means food can no longer travel as it once did, and that breeding patterns change.

Some American Eels have also, unfortunately, been heavily contaminated with chemicals such as PCBs, Mirex, and various pesticides in the past.

 

Sea Otters

Status: Endangered

Otters have a troubled past – if they weren’t being killed for fur in the 1800s, they were being killed from oil spills and overpopulation of predators.

Recent population decline for these furry friends, however, can be attributed to climate change and overfishing. Ocean acidification in the North Pacific, invasive species, and frequency of storm events are all also major factors affecting these beautiful mammals.

But otters could, in fact, be the key to stopping climate change. In their habitat, algae grows in abundance on the shallow seafloor, and absorbs CO2 much faster than trees. Without otters, however, sea urchins are not being kept in-check, and are munching their way through this much-needed seagrass.

Summary

 

Climate change is only set to get worse unless we do something to turn things around. And, as you can see from some examples on this list, once one species suffers, others will inevitably follow.

Want to do something to help change things? Support conservation organisations, invest in renewable energy, cut back on waste, and encourage your local MP to engage in more ethical and environmental causes.

Beth Howell Writer

Beth has a real passion for green living. She’s been absorbed in eco research for over three years, and has become quite the expert. Whether you’re after a new set of solar panels, a home energy improvement, or you want to catch the latest eco news, she’s got your back.