By Monica Lasky on August 2, 2019
We hear it all over the news – hurricanes leveling cities, seas rising, droughts parching crop yields. It’s easy to understand how global climate change is affecting human existence, but how climate change affects wildlife is a bit of a mystery to many. Yet, climate change is considered one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity, and it will be important to combat its effects in the upcoming years.
To understand how the climate can affect wildlife, we first have to understand how animals interact with their environment. All animals require certain habitat characteristics in order to live in an area. Some animals, like the snowshoe hare, have adapted to the heavy winter snowfall that are caused by low annual temperatures. The species will grow white winter coats that are shed and replaced by tawny brown fur during the warmer months. However, as global temperatures rise, snow is melting earlier and earlier each year, making the snowshoe hare more visible, and, thus, more vulnerable, to its predators. This leads to large decreases in population so that, with each given year, the hares produce fewer young. This is just one example of how changes in an area’s normal climatic conditions can lead to a population becoming threatened, or even a species becoming endangered, if the animal is unable to adapt to these rapid changes in one way or another.
Of course, to us, climate change feels anything but rapid. Global temperatures have risen by 1.4° F in the past 40 years, which, to us, is almost imperceptible. However, on an evolutionary scale, these changes are like nothing that have been seen before. Changes through geological time have been very gradual up until the Industrial Revolution, when humans began impacting the global climate. For example, as seen in the graph below, carbon dioxide levels oscillated at fairly steady intervals until the 1950’s, at which these levels begin to spike greatly. Living things are not used to such drastic changes, and have not had the time to adapt to the new conditions found on our planet today. Therefore, unsurprisingly, more and more animals are added to the endangered species list each year, and it’s not uncommon to see “climate change” as one of the risk factors leading to the species’ list of threats.
Every animal has a niche, or the ecological role of an organism in a biological community. A species’ presence within its habitat is the cornerstone to the health of the entire ecosystem. Each niche – and, thus, each animal – is a building block to the community of plants and animals within a given habitat, and, as more and more of these blocks go missing, the entire community can fall apart. As climate change alters the world around us, we risk losing much of the wildlife we see on earth today. To protect our current ecological communities, we must conserve each species in its natural environment, or we risk losing entire ecological cornerstones in which these species thrive.
Want to help protect wildlife by limiting your effects on climate change? Check out this link here to learn how!
- Yan, C., Stenseth, N.C., Krebs, C.J. and Zhang, Z., 2013. Linking climate change to population cycles of hares and lynx. Global Change Biology, 19(11), pp.3263-3271.
- NASA Earth Observatory. “ World of Change: Global Temperatures”. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/DecadalTemp
- Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated.