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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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
  • Climate Winner

    The loss of species is such a tragedy. All the abundance that we have been given, and so much of it has been and is being needlessly destroyed.

    My religious tradition says this, which moves me to my core: “Humanity is degrading the world at a frightening pace, diminishing the wealth of the world and its productivity for the future. This of course is known to many though humanity as a whole and the governments of the world still remain heedless. The needs of the moment overtake the preparation for the future. The preoccupations of lesser matters obscure the needs of greater things.” That’s from http://NewMessage.org

  • Universal Spirituality

    Great Waves of Change by Marshall Vian Summers, is a free book that looks at the bigger picture of what is really going on in our world today. A very interesting Read.

  • ronald gruben

    i always wonder how scientis and other organizations like national geographic can say that animals like the walrus is threatened and could be endangered because they see them haul them selves out of water and say because sea ice is shrinking when we know that they have been doing this for generations as when they have there young ones they go to land were it is safer for them from predators like polar bears and killer whales and the females and males protect them on shore and its closer to feeding grounds some times they should listen to the inuit in the arctic and use traditional knowledge to insure that what they are saying is true about our species that we depend on for subsistance food thank you

  • ronald gruben

    i also think that you have one of the best shows about animals around the world keep it up thank you

  • Robert Strahlendorf

    You forgot humans as winners. There are many more deaths each year due to extreme cold than to extreme heat.

  • Miguel Angel

    Interesting article, another reminder.

  • Susan D Susan

    Wonderful information.

  • Fernando Hernandez

    I don`t believe in climate change(is a theory),since the begining of time is a fact that in nature spieces come and goes.If you can`t adapt you die.

  • Jim Steele

    The Heat should be On shabby reporting, and fear mongering.

    It is even harder to miss massive herd of caribou, but indeed that is what happened. In 2009 the media reported the loss of a 200,000herd of caribou in the Yukon and naturally blamed “the insidious impact of climate change, its tipping of natural balances and disruption of feeding habits, is decimating a species that has long numbered in the millions..” The Inuit and Dene thought the experts were wrong, if not crazy.


    In 2011, the caribou magically re-appeared, and quietly the media reported “A vast herd of northern caribou that scientists feared had vanished from the face of the Earth has been found, safe and sound — pretty much where aboriginal elders said it would be all along.”


    Now it is moose that CO2 advocates trumpet as victims of global warming. But if that were so why have moose been migrating south into Massachusetts where they had disappeared for centuries? http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw/fish-wildlife-plants/mammals/moose-in-mass-generic.html

    The walrus are more frequently observed hauling out on beaches as their numbers rebound from overhunting. Ice is not important and just a few decades ago Russian scientists argued too much ice deprived walrus from their feeding grounds. Many male walrus do not follow the retreating ice northward but migrate southward to Bristol Bay and the Aleutians after ice has melted. In 1925 Captain Bernard wrote in the Journal of Mammalogy, advocating for walrus sanctuaries in Alaska to the south of Barrow. He contrasted the more conservation-minded village of Ingshong to the settlement of Point Hope on the Alaskan Coast. Thirty years before, the walruses had hauled out by the thousands and some would even wander into town. However the traders, whalers, and Inuit of the settlement were all too quick to shoot any weary walrus coming ashore. Walrus returning to these land haul outs should be a cause to celebrate better conservation but instead the politics of climate change have transformed it into a climate catastrophe.

    The Emperor Penguins of Dumont-Durville in Terre Adélie in East Antarctica, are not endangered by warming but left the colony in the 70s as researchers disrupted their breeding habitat to apply flipper bands that often atrophied the flippers. Temperatures have not warmed in 60 years. Satellite data shows Emperors are nearly 3 times more abundant than previously thought. Temperatures from British Antarctic Survey data seen here.


  • Jim Steele

    You might also try reading the paper that suggested tropical trees were running uphill for their lives. They couldn’t identify the species so they wrote, “We therefore elected to conduct all analyses at the genus level. Conducting the analyses at the genus level is also advantageous in that it helps minimize possible errors due to any individuals that
    could not be reliably identified to species.”

    Nor did they actually quantify the upslope migration but instead used changed in density within a one hectare plot over period of just 4 years. If a genus had become more dense on the upslope portion, that was interpreted as migration, or as you suggest running upslope to cooler climates. Only 62% of the genera were more abundant in the upper portion of the plot, close to random. Other factors were not considered, and this is what you portray as climate change disruption. Such publications are an embarrassment to science. They quote another bogus paper to support their beliefs. Read just how bad that analysis was. http://landscapesandcycles.net/climate-doom–parmesan-s-butterfly-effect.html

  • Alexandria Young

    It might be a dumb question, but.. there’s no way we can reverse this global warming? Manipulate something to give back the colder weather? I don’t believe we couldn;t make the technology…

  • JIm Steele

    Deleting comments that disprove your alarmism suggests you would rather support intellectual tyranny and unfounded alarmism rather than open scientific discussion!

  • El Gabilon

    The article fails to mention “humans” as one of the loses! Whether scientists wish to recognize it or not, the earth is a living entity. As such everything in it is connected and is dependant upon each other whether it is “bad” for humans or not. Since the industrial revolution millions of species have become extinct and now the human race is on the list because it is killing itself through polluted air, land, and water. Just as the world is blind to the abuses hurled upon the elderly world wide, it is blind to its own oncoming extinction. There is no hope simply because the world cannot get its act together and do what is right for the planet, reducing or eliminating the causes we have brought about. There are at least 25 dangers that could cause our extinction and so far we are doing nothing about eliminating them or if that is not possible, finding a way off the planet to see that our species survives. Humans are too busy grabing what they can, and without courage to stop those who are causing the problem. Just try to imagine what would happen if you and your family never eliminated the garbage from your home. How long would it be before you could no longer live there. The earth is our home…the only one we have and we are crapping all over it.

  • JIm Steele

    Blaming climate change has misdirected conservation efforts and the case of the Golden Toad is iconic.

    Read Contrasting Good and Bad Science: Disease, Climate Change and the Case of the Golden Toad

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