The Heat Is On: Which Animals Will Win or Lose in Climate Change?

It’s hard to miss a moose.

Moose weigh in at up to 1,800 pounds with antlers that can span 6.5 feet across, yet it’s harder to spot one in North America these days. From British Columbia to New Hampshire, moose populations are in decline and, the New York Times reports, climate change widely figures into speculation about a culprit. From shorter winters increasing the numbers of moose parasites like winter ticks, to warmer winters exposing these cold-weather animals to potentially fatal heat stress, the majestic moose doesn’t seem to be weathering the weather.

Walruses rely on land and rocks to get warm. Photograph by Sergey Gorshkov, National Geographic

Walrus Worries

Another animal that’s losing out as winters warm up, National Geographic recently reported, is the Pacific walrus, which is losing the ice on which it sometimes hangs out. Actually it’s not called a hangout: When walruses pull themselves out of the water to rest or get warm on ice or land, it’s called a “haul out.” And with less floating ice, they’re gathering on Arctic coast land in larger groups than ever. This kind of togetherness isn’t good for the already-threatened species, as it could increase danger from stampedes and raise the possibility of disease outbreak.

Photo of a bird in a Schefflera tree.
A Splendid Astrapia (Astrapia splendidissima) male feeds at a fruiting Schefflera tree. Photograph by Tim Laman, National Geographic

Tropical Trees

It may not be surprising that cold-weather animals will lose out from climate change, but when tropical plants make a run for it, well, that’s a little unsettling.

National Geographic reported last month that tropical plants in the Andes are moving upslope as they reproduce in an effort to get to the cooler temperatures in which they thrive. Some tree species are shifting as much as 12 vertical feet (3.8 meters), but, Justin Catanoso writes, they need to go farther—up to 20 feet—to reach a place with stable temperatures. The schefflera is an example of a plant that could survive. It’s motoring along at about 100 feet a year, while the ficus (the 80s office plant of choice) is going only about 5 feet a year.

A photo of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
An Emperor penguin watches chicks in Antarctica. Photograph by Frans Lanting, National Geographic

Penguin Prospects

From the march of the plants to the March of the Penguins: That much-loved film starred Emperor penguins of the Antarctic, a species that may vanish from Terre Adélie as a result of climate change. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported last year that melting sea ice could be devastating for the Emperor population, as sea ice is about the only place they breed and raise their young. Their food supply is imperiled too. The zooplankton and phytoplankton that live under the ice are eaten by krill, fish, and squid, which are eaten by the penguins. No ice, no plankton; no plankton, no penguin food; no penguin food … no penguins. A team of researchers led by Woods Hole scientists projected that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels, then by the year 2100 the Emperor population at Terre Adélie in East Antarctica will drop from the current (approximately) 3,000 breeding pairs to about 500-600 breeding pairs.

While the Emperor penguin is losing out from climate change, another penguin looks likely to end up one of the climate change winners: the Adélie penguin. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the U.S. and New Zealand published a study this year in which they found the population of the small Antarctic penguin on Beaufort Island in Antarctica went up by 84 percent as the ice fields melted between 1958 and 2010. The last 30 years have shown the biggest change. The snow and ice fields to the north remained stable from 1958 to 1983 and then added 30 meters of ice between then and 2010, creating more habitable land for the penguins, who breed on ice-free land.

Photo of a mosquito.
Mosquitoes are a vector for the transmission of many viral pathogens. Photograph by Kallista Images/SuperStock/Corbis

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Since insects are known to be survivors, it’s probably not surprising that they would be climate change winners, and the buzz is that the Asian tiger mosquito stands to benefit from warmer temps. The blog of the journal PLOS One reports that this lover of warm, wet climates has expanded its range and breeding speed, thanks to warmer winters and more rainfall, among other things. The insect has spread to 36 U.S. states since its arrival 25 years ago (in recycled tires imported from Japan). The bug is capable of transmitting over 20 illnesses, including dengue fever and two types of encephalitis, and it especially likes humans (who doesn’t?). Although those diseases have not been spread by the insects in the U.S. so far, a study published in PLOS One projects that while the land area the mosquito inhabits (it’s taken a shine to the northeastern U.S.) is currently about 5 percent, that will increase to 16 percent in the next 20 years. By the end of the century, its range could expand to about 49 percent of the Northeast and include all the major Atlantic coast cities.

Citronella, anyone?

Bark Beetles on the March

The bark beetle is another insect that’s making a meal out of climate change: This tiny creature is a decimator of forests. Climate Central reported on two studies, one in the journal Ecology showing how drought increases the beetle population, and another in PNAS showing that warmer temperatures are letting them move to higher elevations.

In times of drought, the trees that could normally defend themselves are stressed, and stressed trees are typically what the beetles mostly feast on. Meanwhile, trees at higher elevations haven’t evolved to defend themselves against this invader. Warmer winters also mean more surviving larvae and earlier springs that allow the beetle to extend its range.

A study by Werner Kurtz of the Canadian Forest Service and colleagues says that the damage done by mountain pine beetles in British Columbia may result in the forest emitting more carbon dioxide than it now collects.

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Wildlife

Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com