Animals Most Endangered by Global Warming

Animals Most Endangered by Global Warming

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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

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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 (say, if it's a broiling 20 degrees Fahrenheit above zero instead of the usual 10). If global warming continues at its current pace, experts warn that the emperor penguin could lose nine-tenths 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

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The ringed seal is not currently endangered; there are about 250,000 individuals in Alaska alone and probably more than a 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 invertebrates; 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

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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 the red fox would be kept in check itself by the gray wolf, but this larger canid has been hunted to near-total extinction by humans, leaving red fox populations to surge unchecked.)

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The 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, which distracts belugas from their normal activities. In the intrusive presence of boats, these whales have been known to stop feeding and reproducing, 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 has made the orange clownfish a desirable aquarium fish, further decreasing its numbers.)

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The Koala Bear

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The koala bear, itself, isn't any more vulnerable to rising global temperatures than any of the other marsupials of Australia, such as kangaroos and wombats. The problem is that koalas subsist 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

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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; second, acidification due to increased production of carbon dioxide can cause the buildup of toxins in the blue-green algae flamingos occasionally like to eat; and third, 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 derive their pink coloration from the shrimp in their diet, 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 the male wolverine has a "home range" of almost 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

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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 musk oxen 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 musk oxen if they're especially desperate and hungry. Today, there are only about 100,000 living musk oxen, most of them on Banks Island in northern Canada.

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The 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). By some estimates, the world's polar bear population will plunge by two-thirds by the year 2050 if nothing is done to arrest global warming trends.