Eight Animals Feeling the Heat from Climate Change

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From forest to grassland, desert to ocean, many wildlife species are already “feeling the heat” from climate change. Here are eight animals that provide a glimpse into how climate change is impacting wildlife across the country.

Infographic showing an animal for different regions of the US that are affected by climate change

(Public domain.)

From forest to grassland, desert to ocean, many wildlife species are already “feeling the heat” from climate change. Scientists, supported by the eight regional Department of the Interior Climate Science Centers (CSCs) (which are managed by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center), are actively striving to learn more about what climate change effects on wildlife will look like, whether or not species will be able to adapt and survive, and what natural resource managers can do to help. Here are eight animals that provide a glimpse into how climate change is impacting wildlife across the country.

1. Caribou

As temperatures increase there will likely be more big fire years in Alaska, and this is expected to considerably change caribou habitat. For example, wildfire can destroy slow growing lichens in black spruce forests – a highly nutritious and important winter food source for caribou. Loss of winter habitat for caribou caused by fires in spruce forests could also ultimately affect subsistence hunters who rely on caribou for nutritional, cultural, and economic reasons. Learn more about our research >> 

2. Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Atlantic sea turtles such as the threatened loggerhead are especially vulnerable to coastal climate change impacts. Loggerhead sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, but every couple years, females come ashore about four or five times per nesting season to lay eggs. These turtles rely on a large area of the southeastern U.S. coastline and have been found to travel as far as 250 miles from one nest to the next! Coastal climate change impacts like rising sea levels, increasing storm frequency, and changing temperature and humidity threaten to eliminate or impair the beaches that loggerheads use for nesting. Learn more about our research >>

3. Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe hares have evolved the ability to change fur color during different seasons (white in the presence of snow and brown in warmer seasons) in order to camouflage with their surroundings and hide from predators, like lynx and bobcats. Climate change, however, is causing snow in many areas to melt earlier than the hares have grown accustomed to, leaving stark white hares exposed in non-white, snow-less landscapes. Hares are critical players in forest ecosystems, because they are an important prey source for many carnivore species. This increased exposure and vulnerability could cause such high mortality rates that hare populations could rapidly decline, ultimately affecting the entire forest ecosystem. Learn more about our research >>

4. Atlantic Salmon

Atlantic salmon spend most of their adult lives in the sea, but return to the cool freshwater streams of Maine to breed and lay eggs. Northeastern Atlantic salmon are already endangered, and climate change may further threaten their survival. In particular, warming water temperatures and changing patterns of streamflow are problematic for Atlantic salmon. Such changes may reduce the amount of habitat suitable for nesting, decrease the number of eggs that survive, and disrupt the growth and development of young. Learn more about our research >>

5. Hawaiian ‘I‘iwi

The Hawaiian ‘I‘iwi is a native forest bird species found only in the Hawaiian Islands. Like many Hawaiian forest birds, it is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. One of the major reasons for the recent decline in Hawaiian forest birds is their extreme sensitivity to avian malaria, which is spread by a species of introduced mosquito. For decades, these birds have been able to find refuge from the disease in upper mountain forests, where mosquitoes couldn’t survive the cooler temperatures. However, warmer temperatures associated with climate change are now allowing mosquitoes to move up the mountains, possibly making avian malaria inescapable. Learn more about our research >> 

6. Wyoming Mule Deer

Herds of mule deer in Wyoming migrate each spring from low elevation winter habitat ranges to higher elevation mountain summer ranges. During migration, mule deer “surf the green wave”, following the greenest vegetation as it gradually emerges throughout the spring from low to high elevation areas. This vegetation also provides high quality food that allows deer to gain enough fat in the summer. However, drought (worsened by climate change) can change the timing and pattern of new vegetation growth and make it more difficult for migrating deer to follow the plants. Learn more about our research >>

7. Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is a native stream-dwelling trout species found only in the clear waterways of New Mexico and southern Colorado. (Fun fact: The cutthroat trout is the official state fish of New Mexico!) Over the years, Rio Grande cutthroat trout have lost about 85-90% of their historic habitat, mostly due to human development and competition with non-native species, like rainbow trout. The habitat that remains consists of small, separated areas. Reduced summer streamflow and drought, triggered by climate change, pose major threats to the survival of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, because they will make it even more difficult for the fish to travel between areas of suitable habitat. Learn more about our research >>

8. Greater Sage-Grouse

Changing temperature and precipitation patterns have favored non-native cheatgrass, allowing it to spread across much of the southwestern U.S. As cheatgrass cover has increased across the region, so has the extent and frequency of fire – by as much as 200%! In turn, fire is eliminating sagebrush and native grasses in which many native animals, including greater sage-grouse, breed and feed. As sagebrush habitat disappears over time, so may the greater sage-grouse, which depends on this habitat and lives nowhere else in the world. Learn more about our research >>

Learn more by exploring our project pages by region or searching for a specific topic or animal!