Polar bears walking into cities, whales swimming into London, coyotes colonizing Chicago, and manatees venturing up canals in Delaware are just a few in a sequence of animals that have lately been turning up in places they don’t belong. While some of these bizarre happenings can be attributed to increased urbanization, habitat destruction, and even just wanderlust on the part of individual animals, scientists are increasingly citing climate change as a major factor.
Rising temperatures, melting ice, and shifting ocean currents brought on by global warming are responsible for the displacement of more and more animal species. Changing climate can become too extreme for some animals and drive them into new territories. Displaced animals are now turning up in places they were never previously seen. For instance, Asian tiger mosquitoes have spread across the southern United States and are expected to expand further north in coming years.
In 2010, a gray whale was spotted off the coast of Israel in the Mediterranean Sea, despite the species being naturally found in the Pacific Ocean. A number of other marine species have also been straying, as evidenced by seabirds — possibly following the migration of their food source — switching oceans in recent years. The Northern gannet has been repeatedly spotted in California while the auk — a Pacific diving bird — has been sighted in the Atlantic. Scientists now believe that this perplexing and intensifying trend is yet another unforeseen consequence of climate change. Melting ice in the Arctic may be opening passageways for marine animals to cross into territories they don’t belong in, resulting in a range of knock-on effects to their ecosystems.
The authors of a paper on the topic warn that this displacement has the potential to dramatically alter food web dynamics. They list dozens of species seen drifting lately, including beluga whales, ringed seals, Atlantic white-sided dolphins. By shrinking animals’ natural habitats, climate change can also cause other species to move in to new territories and compete with local animals for limited resources. Drawing from past faunal exchanges, the study’s authors warn that this could involve new species outcompeting native animals, putting them at severe risk of extinction. Killer whales, for instance, have been expanding their range into the “ice-free areas of Hudson Bay” where they are now preying on beluga whales, narwhals and four species of seal previously safe from them. Other risks involve genetic changes, with migrating populations interbreeding and resulting in sometimes harmful hybridization.
Clearly, anthropogenic climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet’s ecosystems in manners we’re just beginning to notice and the mass displacement of species represents another far-reaching threat to our planet’s ecosystems. While countless species are concerned by this, here are five of the many animals suffering from displacement due to climate change.
1. Polar Bears
The many threats climate change poses to polar bears are increasingly coming to light. A decrease in their food supply and habitat size has led many of them to make their way into urban areas in Canada, for instance. Because of climate change, the freeze there comes later each year, preventing polar bears from walking out on the ice as they usually would. Instead, they are forced to stay on the mainland, where they are increasingly coming into contact with humans.
Ian Stirling, a wildlife biologist who has been studying the species for over 40 years believes that these factors may cause the disappearance of polar bears from northern Ontario and Manitoba within decades.
2. Snow Leopards
According to WWF, a third of snow leopards’ living area in the Himalayas could become uninhabitable because of climate change. By shrinking its habitat, warmer temperatures could result in the extinction of this iconic species.
Snow leopards already face a number of serious threats endangering their survival. Their mountain habitat is increasingly encroached upon by humans, and a decline in natural prey means they are more likely to attack livestock, which can result in revenge killings. Snow leopards are also poached for their body parts to be sold in the illegal wildlife trade.
A recent study found that further unchecked climate change could result in a quarter of European butterfly species losing over 95 percent of their current range by 2080. Droughts caused by global warming may also severely endanger the survival of six butterfly species in the United Kingdom alone. Only by moving to cooler and wetter refuges could the species survive, as the study authors believe that the butterflies won’t evolve quickly enough to adapt to the droughts. A warming climate has the potential to cause widespread local butterfly extinctions by the end of the century.
Similarly to butterflies, bumblebees are facing severe threats due to climate change. A third of them risk losing 80 percent of their current range by the end of the century, and their intolerance to heat means that extreme temperatures could wipe out huge numbers of them as well as dry up the food sources they rely on.
Key to the survival of many flowers and plants, bumblebees — whose vibrations shake pollen loose — are essential to our ecosystems and their disappearance could have catastrophic consequences. Unlike other animals, bees are confounding scientists by failing to relocate to cooler climes in the face of rising temperatures. Scientists speculate that the species cannot move north as certain plants they need to survive remain south. While butterflies are responding by trying to expand their range, bumblebees are staying put and getting killed off.
A study conducted by Birdlife International has found that the world’s birds are being forced to flock towards the north and south poles because of climate change affecting their natural habitats. One of the paper’s authors, Tris Allison, explained that while “people regard climate change as something on the horizon… the signals from birds are that significant and profound changes are already occurring, with detrimental effects for a large proportion of the birds studied.” In fact, the study found that a quarter of the 570 bird species observed had been negatively affected by climate change. Toucans are seeking higher ground and jays are being forced to shift their range northwards, while certain species of puffins and penguins have seen their population drop by half.
A third of Europe’s birdlife is already endangered and many local species are set to become threatened or extinct. Birds in parts of Africa are projected to lose all their suitable habitats by 2100, while the majority of North American birds risk losing more than half their current range.
Martin Harper, director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) states that “climate change is the greatest long-term threat to people and wildlife. We are already seeing its impacts, and, alongside other pressures on land and at sea, our wildlife is increasingly at risk.”
What Can We Do?
Seeing how climate change is impacting these animals, it can be easy to feel defenseless or that this is a problem too large for us to even make a dent in. This, however, is hardly the case. While the carbon emissions of large industries like coal and oil need to be regulated, as an individual you have an incredible opportunity to start reducing your own carbon footprint. People are making small changes every day like choosing to walk or bike to work rather than driving, seeking out recycling bins for plastic waste, and even being mindful of the impact of their consumption choices. In keeping with this theme of doing small things, there is another solution that can have an enormously positive impact for the planet – and, it might just be the simplest one yet: changing the way you eat.
We all have the chance to lower our personal carbon footprints every time we sit down for a meal. By opting to eat fewer meat and dairy products in favor of plant-based alternatives, you can literally halve your own carbon footprint – yes, halve!
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51 percent. Not only is animal agriculture responsible for exorbitant greenhouse gas emissions, this destructive industry currently occupies over half of the world’s arable land resources, uses the majority of our freshwater stores.
One Green Planet believes that our global food system dominated by industrial animal agriculture is at the heart of our environmental crisis as this system also causes rampant air and water pollution, land degradation, deforestation – and is pushing countless species to the brink of extinction. And yet, one in eight people still suffer from food scarcity.
“The real war against climate is being fought on our plates, multiple times a day with every food choice we make,” says Nil Zacharias, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Green Planet, ”one of the biggest challenges facing our planet, and our species is that we are knowingly eating ourselves into extinction, and doing very little about it.”
As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future.
For the future of struggling species, like these animals, we all need to start eating with the planet in mind. To learn more about how you can save species with your next meal, join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign.
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Lead image source: Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr