7 animals we could lose forever due to climate change

From flying foxes to corals, the world will never look the same if carbon emissions continue apace

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 8, 2023 1:16PM (EDT)

Grey-Headed Flying Fox (Getty Images/Jamie Lamb)
Grey-Headed Flying Fox (Getty Images/Jamie Lamb)

In 2022, the United Nations projected that roughly one million wild species were heading toward extinction due to human activity. Not all of these species are in danger of being wiped out due to climate change; pangolins, for instance, are also highly sought after for their meat and scales (used in traditional Chinese medicine), while sharks face problems because their fins are eaten, they are often caught by accident and they are misunderstood.

"There are still many species we have not described; many will go extinct undescribed."

Yet for many endangered animals, climate change is the major cause of their impending extinction. In a future world in which extreme weather conditions like floods, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes are normal — to say nothing of a constantly warming temperature — many of Earth's most charismatic creatures will simply have no where to go.

Even more tragic, many of the species lost will vanish without humans ever knowing they existed. In the words of Dr. Alice C. Hughes of the University of Hong Kong, "There are many species we have not even described yet. To put this in perspective a few weeks ago we were surveying Thai caves, and found an almost certainly new species of gecko. There are still many species we have not described; many will go extinct undescribed."

Salon reached out to experts to identify some of the most iconic animals that will — or already have — become victims of man-made climate change.

Corals — and all the animals that depend on them (including walruses and polar bears)
Great Barrier ReefGreat Barrier Reef (Getty Images / Lea McQuillan / 500px)
Though coral typically like cauliflower, bushes and other plants, they are actually animals — albeit "sessile" ones, meaning that they root to the ocean floor and do not move as most animals do. Yet the coral reefs that house these spiny and colorful marine invertebrates contain complex ecosystems which fuel the entire marine food web. That is why climate change destroying our coral reefs is, really, about a whole lot more.
"We will lose many coral species, and the resulting degradation of reef ecosystems will threaten hundreds, if not thousands, of reef species with extinction," John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, told Salon by email. "Ice dependent species, such as many seals, walrus, and polar bears, may disappear. Krill abundance will decline in Antarctic waters, impacting everything from penguins to whales."
Marbled velvet geckoMarbled velvet gecko cleaning eye with tongue (Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
While Dr. Hughes spoke to Salon about a rare species of Thai gecko that researchers were barely able to discover — but which was nearly lost to time — there are plenty of known gecko species that will suffer due to climate change. As cold-blooded lizards, geckos are particularly susceptible to alterations in temperatures, and as such the wall-climbing and colorful animals may not make it as the Earth's temperature warms.
The problem is that gecko eggs cannot thrive above certain temperatures. In a recent experiment, scientists discovered that when velvet geckos eggs were incubated at higher temperatures than the geckos are used to, fewer hatchlings survived — and those that did tended to be born smaller.
Grey-headed and little red flying foxes
Grey-headed Flying FoxGrey-headed Flying Fox (Getty Images/Ken Griffiths)
Australia's flying foxes are one of the continent's underrated gems. With their bat-like wings, furry bodies and deep black eyes, the flying foxes may seem demonic, but they are also intelligent and curious animals. Yet they are headed toward extinction because they can't survive in Australia's ever-heating climate; some scientists even built sprinkler systems to help some of the hapless creatures cool off.
"Grey-headed and little red flying foxes show mass die-offs at above certain temperatures, and those temperatures are being reached far more frequently now," Hughes wrote to Salon. They are hardly alone among dying flying foxes in Australia.

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African wild dogs

African wild dog playing with puppiesAfrican wild dog playing with puppies (Getty Images/Manoj Shah)
African wild dogs have the dubious distinction of being the only surviving canine from the genus known as lycaon. Yet thanks to climate change, the African wild dog — which is also the largest wild canine in Africa — may not survive much longer.
It has to do with the same problem decimating the geckos: breeding temperatures. Scientists in Botswana recently learned that to adjust to climate change, African wild dogs have shifted their breeding schedule by 22 days due to the shrinking cool season. This may not seem like much, but it means that the pups have much less time to adjust to their new life. Survival rates are plummeting as a result.
Migratory birds
Spoon-billed sandpiperSpoon-billed sandpiper (Getty Images/kajornyot)
As Hughes explained to Salon, any species that regularly migrates is going to be vulnerable to climate change.
"These species often use different cues to initiate migration so they arrive when food is available, yet these different cues and the different timing can leave them vulnerable if they arrive either after the food availability or too long before it starts," Hughes wrote. As one example, she pointed to migratory waders or shorebirds like those which rely on the  East Asian Australasian flyway, or a complex of islands and ocean crossings frequented by hundreds of migratory bird species, "some of which already show population losses over 70% due to coastal habitat losses, and species like spoonbilled sandpipers — which already number under 700 individuals."
Little Blue PenguinsLittle Blue Penguins (Getty Images/tiger_barb)
"Hundreds of little penguins are washing up dead on New Zealand shores," read a heartbreaking Washington Post headline last year. The specific penguin species are little blue penguins (yes, that's their official name), and they are known for their blue coats, noisy dispositions and anchovy-and-sardine filled diets.
As it turned out, hundreds of them had washed up on shore dead. Climate change has increased water temperatures and made storms both more common and more frequent. As a result penguins in general are struggling to survive in the modern world.
Copepods, light micrographCopepods, light micrograph (Getty Images / CHOKSAWATDIKORN / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)
Because they're microscopic, most of us don't think much about plankton, if all. Yet despite their microscopic size, have an outsized impact on the planet. Animals from whales and fish to barnacles rely on plankton to survive. Indeed, they are the base of the food chain — and toying with their numbers would have a catastrophic effect going all the way up the food chain to humans.
"Ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change caused by direct absorption of carbon dioxide into water, is likely to wipe out whole classes of plankton, leading to a transformation of marine sea webs that is impossible to imagine," Hocevar told Salon.
Unlike the other animals on this list, plankton probably won't ever go completely extinct, simply due to their incredible numbers. However, even a 10 percent drop in their population would lead to a chilling wave of death for all the thousands of animals that depend on them for survival. 


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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