Climate change has been increasingly evident on a global scale for several years with unprecedented weather anomalies, like this week’s 1000-year flood that claimed over a dozen lives in Colorado.
But warming temperatures and changing seasons are also playing a huge role as an extinction driver for wildlife species, according to a new study released this month in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The findings authored by senior researcher Dr. Nathalie Petterelli says almost half of the world’s birds and amphibian species are facing extinction due to climate change and species in rare or extreme habitats are even more vulnerable.
Specifically, North Carolina State University is working with students at University of Montana to study how climate change is impacting snowshoe hares and prey animals like the Canadian Lynx that is dependent upon hares for survival.
Snowshoe hares are near the bottom of the food chain and their main protection from predators is their ability to blend in to their surroundings making it harder for a hawk, coyote or lynx to see them.
However, in recent years the snowshoe hare population has been declining due to an imbalance in their annual color change from brown in the spring to white in the fall.
“If the snowshoe hares are consistently molting at the same time, year after year, and the snowfall comes later and melts earlier, there’s going to be more and more times when hares are mismatched with their surroundings,” graduate student Alex Kumar told an NPR reporter. “[Problem is] they still think they’re camouflaged.”
Scientists say snowshoe hares will become extinct within a relatively short time if they can’t adapt fast enough to the changing seasons.
Adaption to climate change is also a problem for the American pika, which is a small rodent from the rabbit family that inhabits cooler high alpine mountain tops across the Western US. The pika adapted over many thousands of years to live in colder temperatures and with the onset of global warming many lower-level populations have already disappeared from more than one-third of known habits in Oregon and Nevada.
Pikas are so intolerant to heat they can die within hours.
National Wildlife Federation researchers reported “as temperatures rise, pikas will abandon lower-elevation talus slopes and migrate higher into the mountains until they can go no farther--much like living on the highest point of a sinking island.”
Translocation could save many species.
Dr. Petterelli said this about a possible solution: “relocating vulnerable species to new and more suitable habitats may be the only way to protect them. However, this is an extreme conservation action, which needs to be thoroughly justified, and requires clear guidance on where threatened populations should be moved."
Nonetheless, wildlife that depends on highly extreme and specialized habitats may someday only be seen in world zoos if global warming continues unchecked.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, vulnerable habitat-specific wildlife includes the following:
Emperor penguins, polar bears, American pikas, sea turtles, North American right whales, giant pandas, elephants, tigers, orangutans and many more.