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Study: Warming puts seals, koalas at risk

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Polar bears get most of the attention when it comes to climate change and threatened species, but a new study finds they're not alone.

Clownfish, koalas and many other species are in danger too, according to a report released Monday by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the largest association of species experts in the world.

“Humans are not the only ones whose fate is at stake here in Copenhagen — some of our favorite species are also taking the fall for our CO2 emissions,” said report co-author Wendy Foden.

The report, "Species and Climate Change," looks at 10 species, including Emperor penguins, koalas, and arctic foxes.

In the case of Clownfish, aka the Nemos of the underwater world, their coral reef habitats are under severe threat from warmer waters that can bleach, and then kill, coral. Moreover, acidification of sea waters due to higher carbon dioxide levels prevents coral and some other skeletal-based organisms from forming shells.

"‘Mass coral bleaching is a new phenomenon dating back to the 1980s," the IUCN says, "and is now the main cause of coral mortality and reef deterioration globally." A third of all coral species are already listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.

Losing an icy habitat
Polar species are being hit especially hard by the loss of ice due to global warming, the report says.

Emperor penguins "are predicted to lose sea ice platforms for breeding and face changes in food availability." Less sea ice could make it easier for penguins to reach water, but it also means that growing chicks still without their waterproof feathers could drown by falling through thinner ice, the report finds. And thinning ice could reduce krill, the shrimp-like invertebrates that penguins rely on for food.

Could Emperor penguins adapt by moving to dry land? Two colonies do live on land and have remained stable over 20 years, the IUCN says, so "potentially" that's doable if they find suitable food inland.

Another polar creature, the arctic fox, faces habitat loss as well as competition and predation from red foxes as higher temperatures warm the tundra, the IUCN says.

Arctic foxes prey largely on lemmings and voles, and "shorter winters are predicted to cause declines in the regularity of these rodents’ population cycles, as well as decreases in their overall numbers," the IUCN says. Because their habitat area is shrinking, the number of arctic foxes "that can be supported worldwide is likely to decrease."

Meantime, ringed seal reproduction is being disrupted by Arctic summer sea ice that is melting earlier each year.

"Both ice and snow must be stable enough in the spring season to successfully complete the six week period of lactation. If the landfast ice breaks up too soon, pups may be separated prematurely from their mothers, resulting in high pup mortality," the IUCN says.

Insufficient snow early in the breeding season as well as "spring rains or warm spring temperatures can cause the roofs of lairs to prematurely collapse, leaving ringed seals unsheltered and exposed to predators." As for adapting by moving, the IUCN says, "their already high-latitude distribution range limits their potential for pole-ward migration."

Koalas vulnerable
The impact of climate change may spread far beyond the polar regions.

Koalas' reliance on Eucalyptus leaves for food could mean mass malnutrition, the IUCN says, because increasing CO2, while allowing plants to grow faster, "also reduces protein levels and increases tannin levels in plants' leaves. As CO2 levels continue to rise, Koalas and other browsers will need to cope with increasingly nutrient-poor and tannin-rich Eucalyptus leaves."

Global warming models also predict more wildfires and longer, more severe droughts in places like Australia. Koalas are vulnerable to both. Koalas do not have great potential for adapting, the IUCN says, "as changes are occurring faster than koalas are likely to have experienced in the past."

Meantime, many freshwater habitats of salmon are facing warmer temperatures and altered seasonal flows.