Climate change has already harmed more than half of all mammals

The time where we could think about the effects of climate change in the future tense is long gone. A survey of studies found that the effect of global warming on mammal species, especially endangered species, have been wildly underestimated.

Snow leopards are among the most threatened animals. Climate change has caused massive decline in their population. Credits: Tambako the Jaguar

The study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that 700 species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “red list” were harmed by climate change. This red list is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species, featuring some of the most iconic and threatened species on the planet. Researchers stress that these effects are being felt now and not at some vague point in the future, expressing their disappointment that most climate studies on biodiversity focus on the effects of climate change 50 to 100 years from now. We need to shift away from that mentality and focus on imminent threats. James Watson, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia who participated in the study explains:

“It’s a scientific problem in that we are not thinking about climate change as a present-day problem, we’re always forecasting into the future,” he said, adding, “When you look at the evidence, there is a massive amount of impact right now.”

He and the rest of his team examined some 130 previous studies, putting all their conclusions together. They found that animals from all continents were affected. Animals with highly specialized diets and animals living in high altitudes were especially at risk, but even those with a wide range of diets were suffering. Iconic creatures such as snow leopards, gorillas, and elephants have all suffered from massive declines.

They also showed that animals that breed fast better adapted to the conditions, as were animals who are natural burrowers. At the crossroad of these two traits, rodents came out as natural survivors in the face of climate change. But slow breeders, including primates, elephants, and marsupials, were less able to adapt to the changing conditions. Because they’ve lived for so long in a stable environment, they can’t really adapt to rising temperatures and extreme weather events.

The study also found that previous works have drastically underestimated the effects of global warming. However, they do note that their study was mostly focused on animals from Europe and the Americas, so their findings might be less generalizable to other parts of the world.

“We have seriously underestimated the effects of climate change on the most well-known groups, which means those other groups, reptiles, amphibians, fish, plants, the story is going to be much, much worse in terms of what we think the threat is from climate change already,” he said.

Michela Pacifici of the Global Mammal Assessment program at Sapienza University of Rome, a lead author of the study, says that things are about to get worse in the future — the near future.

“It is likely that many of these species have a high probability of being very negatively impacted by expected future changes in the climate,” she said.

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