Animal Heat Stress: How Climate Change Could Affect Wildlife

When we talk about climate change, we often focus on the large-scale changes, such as those related to global temperature and rising sea levels. If animals come into the conversation, it’s usually in regards to big-picture events such as extinction or habitat destruction and forecasts of future impacts.

Climate change is also affecting animals, however, in observable ways. Global warming is altering animal behavior and health as we speak, and these deviations will likely become more pronounced in the future.

The shifting climate is impacting most species on earth, studies have shown. Some have benefited from changes such as longer growing seasons for their food, but as many as half have already suffered negative impacts. A recent survey found that climate change has already affected around 700 species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of endangered animals.

Wildlife is providing us with clues that could help us understand how the climate is changing and the impacts these changes could have. These signs include:

Shifting Range

As temperatures rise, species are moving to cooler climates. Those that already live in cold climates, however, have nowhere to go.

Other species become trapped by geographical conditions and changes to landscapes caused by humans. For many species, moving North would require cutting through highly developed areas.

The Australian government recently declared extinct the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lived only on one small reef island at the tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Rising sea levels destroyed the animals’ tiny habitat, making it possible the first mammal extinction caused exclusively by climate change.

Inability to migrate in search of warmer climates has also led to more than 450 local extinctions, meaning that a species disappears from a particular portion of its range but still lives in other areas. This also leads to groups of the same species getting cut off from one another, which decreases genetic diversity.

In other cases, moving North has increased species’ genetic diversity. The southern flying squirrel, for example, has begun breeding with the northern flying squirrel.

Just because some species have benefited from this forced migration or learned to adapt, doesn’t mean everything will be okay, researchers warn. Studies have shown that many species have experienced harm due to climate change.

Life Cycle Changes

Climate change has already caused changes in many species’ life cycles, behaviors and physical traits. Some have adapted fairly well, but others, especially with slower reproduction cycles and more specific living condition requirements, have struggled.

Various animals are ending their hibernations earlier, breeding earlier and eating different foods than they did in the past. The mountain pygmy possum, which lives in Australia, has begun coming out of hibernation earlier. Its prey, the bogong moth, has not, which has led many of the species to die of starvation.

One recent study found that 77 of 94 ecological processes studied had changed due to climate change. These processes included species’ genetics and morphology — their physical traits such as body size and shape.

Health Impacts

Even in cases that aren’t as extreme as that of the mountain pygmy possum, species around the world are experiencing changes in food availability because different plants and animals thrive in different climates. These changes are impacting animals’ health in various. Some have shrunk, while others have grown larger.

The woodland salamanders of the Appalachian Mountains have gotten smaller in recent years. Polar bears and elephant seal pups have been found to be getting thinner. Marmots living in the Americas, however, have grown in size due to an extended growing season that provides them with more food.

Animals that can’t escape warming temperatures might also experience acute health impacts such as heat stress, symptoms of which include loss of coordination, trembling and staggering. As temperatures continue to rise, these impacts will increase in frequency and severity.

Due to climate change, animals may experience increasing instances of heat stress, as well as stresses to their long-term well-being caused by rising temperatures. The vast majority of species on earth will likely experience impacts from climate change, especially if we don’t take drastic action to counter it. Humans are not immune to these impacts.

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Emily is a freelance conservation journalist who feels passionately about protecting endangered species and preserving the wilderness landscapes.

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