Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies


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Climate change not only affects ecosystems and species directly, it also interacts with other human stressors such as development. Although some stressors cause only minor impacts when acting alone, their cumulative impact may lead to dramatic ecological changes. Additionally, recently logged forested areas may become vulnerable to erosion if climate change leads to increases in heavy rain storms. For many species, the climate where they live or spend part of the year influences key stages of their annual life cycle, such as migration, blooming, and reproduction.

As winters have become shorter and milder, the timing of these events has changed in some parts of the country:. An ecosystem refers to the animals, plants, and microorganisms that live in one place, as well as the environmental conditions that support them. Ecosystem services include the products and services provided by ecosystems, such as food, fuel, timber, water, clean air, and medicines. It also includes less material benefits, such as regulation of local climate conditions and aesthetic value or cultural identity.

An ecological threshold is the point at which there is an abrupt change in an ecosystem quality, property, or phenomenon, or where small changes in one or more external conditions produce large and persistent responses in an ecosystem. A biome is a large, naturally occurring community of plants and animals occurring in a regional or global land area. A food web is a group of predators and prey that interact in a habitat or ecosystem.

A stressor is a factor that reduces the health or productivity of an ecosystem i.


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Because species differ in their ability to adjust, asynchronies can develop, increasing species and ecosystem vulnerability. These asynchronies can include mismatches in the timing of migration, breeding, pest avoidance, and food availability.

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Growth and survival are reduced when migrants arrive at a location before or after food sources are present. As temperatures increase, the habitat ranges of many North American species are moving north and to higher elevations. In recent decades, in both land and aquatic environments, plants and animals have moved to higher elevations at a median rate of 36 feet 0. While this means a range expansion for some species, for others it means movement into less hospitable habitat, increased competition, or range reduction, with some species having nowhere to go because they are already at the top of a mountain or at the northern limit of land suitable for their habitat.

For example, boreal forests are invading tundra, reducing habitat for the many unique species that depend on the tundra ecosystem, such as caribou, arctic foxes, and snowy owls. As rivers and streams warm, warmwater fish are expanding into areas previously inhabited by coldwater species. See the Agriculture and Food Supply Impacts page for information about how habitats of marine species have shifted northward as waters have warmed.

The impact of climate change on a particular species can ripple through a food web and affect a wide range of other organisms. For example, the figure below shows the complex nature of the food web for polar bears. Not only is the decline of sea ice impairing polar bear populations by reducing the extent of their primary habitat, it is also negatively impacting them via food web effects.

Declines in the duration and extent of sea ice in the Arctic leads to declines in the abundance of ice algae, which thrive in nutrient-rich pockets in the ice. These algae are eaten by zooplankton, which are in turn eaten by Arctic cod, an important food source for many marine mammals, including seals. Seals are eaten by polar bears. Hence, declines in ice algae can contribute to declines in polar bear populations.

The Arctic food web is complex. The loss of sea ice can ultimately affect the entire food web, from algae and plankton to fish to mammals. Even within a single ecosystem, there can be winners and losers from climate change. Ecosystems can serve as natural buffers from extreme events such as wildfires, flooding, and drought. Examples include reefs and barrier islands that protect coastal ecosystems from storm surges, wetland ecosystems that absorb floodwaters, and cyclical wildfires that clear excess forest debris and reduce the risk of dangerously large fires.

In some cases, ecosystem change occurs rapidly and irreversibly because a threshold, or "tipping point," is passed. One area of concern for thresholds is the Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central part of the United States. This ecosystem is a vast area of small, shallow lakes, known as "prairie potholes" or "playa lakes. The pothole region has experienced temporary droughts in the past.

However, a permanently warmer, drier future may lead to a threshold change—a dramatic drop in the prairie potholes that host waterfowl populations, which subsequently provide highly valued hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities. Similarly, when coral reefs become stressed from increased ocean temperatures, they expel microorganisms that live within their tissues and are essential to their health.

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This is known as coral bleaching. As ocean temperatures warm and the acidity of the ocean increases , bleaching and coral die-offs are likely to become more frequent. Chronically stressed coral reefs are less likely to recover.

Climate change and shifts in ecological conditions could support the spread of pathogens, parasites, and diseases, with potentially serious effects on human health, agriculture, and fisheries. For example, the oyster parasite, Perkinsus marinus , is capable of causing large oyster die-offs. This parasite has extended its range northward from Chesapeake Bay to Maine, a mile expansion tied to above-average winter temperatures.

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Climate change, along with habitat destruction and pollution, is one of the important stressors that can contribute to species extinction. Settele, J. Scholes, R. Betts, S. Bunn, P. Leadley, D. Nepstad, J. Overpeck, and M. Terrestrial and Inland Water Systems.

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Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies

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Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies Wildlife Responses to Climate Change: North American Case Studies
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