10 animals threatened by climate change

MANILA, Philippines – Can you imagine a world without the Giant Panda or the Pawikan?

By the end of the century, thousands of animals may be gone from the face of the Earth. The culprit? Human-induced climate change.

Over 1,400 endangered species are threatened by a disrupted climate, according to a 2014 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

Climate change is drastically changing the habitats and conditions which many types of animals depend on to survive, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Animals are struggling to adapt but there is a limit to how much they can adjust. 

The future is particularly bleak for animals that have specialized eating or breeding habits, such as the koala that eats only certain types of eucalyptus leaves.

At risk too are animals that live in habitats which may disappear completely if climate change goes unabated – like the polar bears who depend on sea ice ecosystems. (READ: Missing lynx: Climate change to wipe out rarest cat)

The fate of such animals, as well as the entire human race, rest on the climate change conference to be held in Paris, France in December. 

During this gathering, world leaders will try to form a legally-binding plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Only by doing so can the world hope to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C (some say 1.5°C), a level that bodes catastrophe for all forms of life.

Climate change works with other factors to threaten animals. It compounds other problems like deforestation, poaching, destructive fishing, and pollution.

Here are 10 animals which are unlikely to survive a drastically-changed climate:

Emperor Penguin

Emperor penguins are most famous for their starring role in the animated film, Happy Feet. But if climate change persists, they might soon exist only on the silverscreen. 

By the year 2100, most colonies of emperor penguins will have less than half of their current populations if humanity does nothing about climate change.

A study published in Nature Climate Change journal in 2014 showed that such a population decline will be likely if global temperatures rise at the rate predicted by the IPCC.

A hotter Antarctica, where these flightless birds are found, will mean more melting sea ice. Sea ice is the habitat of krill, a primary food source for the penguins. With less and less sea ice, there will be less krill for them to eat.

Giant Panda 

Life for the adorable giant pandas may be tough by the end of the century.  

A 2012 study by Chinese scientists predict that at the rate things are going, climate change will destroy critical panda habitats in China.

Bamboo, the main source of food and habitat for pandas, won't survive the projected temperature increases in China. The only chance for survival is if bamboo move to higher ground where the temperature is cooler.

Koala

More and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, aside from driving climate change, can lead to starving and eventually dying koalas.

According to the IUCN, more atmospheric CO2 reduces the protein content of eucalyptus leaves, the sole food of koalas.

Less nutritional leaves results in malnutrition and starvation among koalas.

Intense drought, one of the effects of climate change, dries up forests forcing koalas to leave their trees in search of water. This exposes them to the risk of predators or of becoming road kill, one of the major causes of koala population decline.

More frequent bushfires due to dryer forests also destroy koala habitats. 

North Atlantic Right Whale

About 90% of global warming is absorbed by oceans. This does not bode well for sea animals like the North Atlantic Right Whale, already endangered from net entanglement and ship strikes.

Warmer oceans could affect the abundance and location of zooplankton and krill, which the whales feed on. These fluctuations in food availability have already lowered the whales' reproductive rates, according to Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

Clownfish

Pretty soon, it'll be hard finding Nemo.

The clownfish, famous all over the world for starring in a Pixar film, is one of 28 types of fish that call sea anemones home. 

But warmer oceans could lead to massive bleaching that can damage anemones and coral reefs, according to the US National Marine Fisheries Service. 

Too much CO2 in the water, another outcome of climate change, can impair the sense of smell and hearing of young orange clownfish. When exposed to certain CO2 levels, they move towards predators and are unable to find their way back to their coral reef homes.

Orangutan

Climate change could lead to more intense droughts in Indonesia, increasing the likelihood of bushfires which destroy the forest homes of orangutans.

Their source of food is also endangered by a disrupted climate, according to conservation group Orang Utan Republik Foundation. Delayed monsoon seasons and longer, more severe dry seasons reduce the abundance of fruits they depend on.

Hunger and malnutrition can harm the reproductive capacities of female orangutans. 

Ringed Seals 

Arctic sea ice is shrinking dramatically. In 2014, its size reached the 6th lowest on record. This spells trouble for the ringed seals who depend almost solely on sea ice cover for survival.

Ringed seals use the sea ice and snow to create dens where they raise their pups, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Melting sea ice and snow causes these dens to collapse, exposing the pups to predators like polar bears and gulls.

Pawikan 

Sea turtles like the iconic Pawikan return to the same sandy beach to lay their eggs. Problem is, rising sea level due to melting polar ice is flooding these beaches and causing them to disappear.

When they do find their beach, the hotter climate heats up the sand abnormally. Sand temperature determines the gender of baby sea turtles, according to Sea Turtle Conservancy.

Eggs exposed to cooler temperatures, like those below other eggs, become males while eggs exposed to warmer temperatures become female.

With hotter sand, scientists predict there will be more females than male hatchlings, upsetting the balance needed to ensure growing populations of sea turtles.  

Warmer ocean waters also endanger the food of sea turtles – temperature-sensitive sea grass, algae, jellyfish, and sponges. 

Staghorn Coral 

This type of reef-building coral has been listed under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with climate change being among the top threats.  

Staghorn corals, like other corals, are extremely sensitive to changing sea temperatures. Too much warming causes them to "bleach" or expel algae which they rely on for energy. Such bleaching events can cause large swathes of staghorn corals to die.

Ocean acidification, or the reduction of pH level in ocean waters due to rising CO2 concentrations, weakens coral skeletons.  

Corals are among the biggest losers in a world with a disrupted climate, so much so that 33% of coral species are on the IUCN's Red List. 

Polar Bear 

The poster bear of climate change impacts is such for a reason. Dwindling sea ice puts many polar bears on the edge of survival.

Sea ice makes hunting seals and fish easy for them, allowing them to restore their body fat in preparation for the warm season when there is less ice.

But the changing climate is causing sea ice to melt earlier in spring and form later in autumn in places like Canada, according to WWF.

This makes it harder for the bears to get their food, forcing them to swim farther distances. Less food means malnourished or starving bears.

Life is even tougher for pregnant bears, bears nursing their young, and the cubs themselves. Scientists found that among cubs in Hudson Bay, Canada, the main cause of death is lack of food or lack of fat on nursing mothers

– Rappler.com

Which endangered animal will you miss the most? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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