Life has existed on Earth for four billion years, and in that time, life forms have evolved and adapted to changes in the environment. However, the current climate changes that are driven by human activities are happening too rapidly for many animal species to adapt.
The value of a species isn't dependent on how it looks, but there are some very cute animals that we may only get to remember in picture books if we don't act to save them. Photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark are documenting at-risk wildlife in hopes of spreading awareness—and making change, too.
The job is immense: Sartore hopes to document 12,000 species by the time he finishes. Incredibly, he's nearly halfway there.
"Half of all species will go into extinction by the turn of the next century, in the wild at least. So what I'm trying to explore and share is the fact that we are throwing away the ark," he says. "My goal is to get people to wake up and say 'Whoa, that's amazing. What am I gonna do to save that?' And then actually do [something to] save that. It just takes one person of passion to get it done. So that's what I'm trying to do—to halt extinction or slow the process a little bit."
Here are 17 of the most incredibly cute animals we could lose because of human-caused climate change. Let's save them together.
1. Sea turtles
Climate change affects sea turtles in a number of different ways. As carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, the water becomes increasingly acidic. In turn, this softens the sea turtles' shells, making them more susceptible to becoming prey. Rising sea levels will affect where the turtles can nest to lay their eggs. The fate of the eggs themselves is one of the biggest threats to the future of the species. The sex of turtles is determined by temperature, and the warming climate will cause many more females to be born than males.
2. Polar bears
One of the biggest threats to the future of polar bears is diminishing ice, which interferes with the bears' hibernation habits. Additionally, climate changes are affecting animals down the food chain, which ultimately affects what polar bears are able to eat. As polar bears need to look harder for food, they will have to migrate closer to where people are, which isn't good for the bears or for people.
Environmental changes impact krill and small fish, in turn affecting whales' diets. In addition, warming ocean waters also impact the migration of these massive animals. Whales that thrive in the Arctic are especially at risk, as rising ocean temperatures will mean these creatures won't have anywhere suitable to go.
Ice levels in Antarctica are a precarious concern, particularly for penguins. As ice shelves continue to collapse, there will be less area to which penguins can escape from predators such as orcas and leopard seals. Additionally, without enough food for the females to bring back to their families, populations are at risk of starvation.
Many female seals give birth and rear their pups on ice, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the amount of ice declines. Additionally, when seals go into the water to look for food, they have to swim greater distances between resting places. When they get exhausted, they are at an increased risk of being attacked by predators and will require even more food to make up for their energy loss.
6. Mountain goats
Built for much colder temperatures, many mountain goats are threatened by an increasingly warming climate. They can become overheated while looking for food, which could lead to starvation. Scientists have already seen a correlation between reduced body weights in deceased goats as the temperatures increase.
Already in rapid decline, puffins and other sea birds face incredible hardship due to climate change. The increased temperatures affect the birds' food source, leading to starvation.
Though not well known, small mammals called pikas are at great risk due to climate change. As temperatures increase, pikas overheat when looking for food. This can happen fairly quickly, and it puts the pika at risk of being eaten by a predator or being unable to feed itself, leading to starvation.
The life-cycle and migration patterns of butterflies are fairly rigid. As seasons shift because of changing temperatures, their food supply is greatly compromised. Monarch butterflies make an incredibly long migration across North America and are at the greatest risk if food isn't available when they need it to be.
As water continues to acidify, frogs' eggs are at risk of being unable to develop properly. Additionally, warmer temperatures have harbored diseases that are decimating frog populations in great numbers.
As climate change alters weather patterns, the pangolin (which is already being driven toward extinction due to its popularity in illegal wildlife trafficking) will be greatly affected by changes in rainfall and shifting food supply.
The reduction in polar ice is of great concern to walruses. Without being able to rest on the ice, walruses will be forced to come on land in droves, putting them closer to polar bears—one of their predators. Additionally, the diminished ice also means that the animals will have to swim longer between rests, which is also troublesome for predation.
In addition to increasingly acidifying waters that destroy seahorse habitats, the increased temperatures also make it more difficult for these animals to swim. Their newly sluggish metabolism not only makes it more difficult to find food, but it also makes it harder to evade predators.
Climate change poses the biggest risk to otters by threatening the expansive aquatic kelp forests. Otters eat animals that eat the kelp, thereby performing a necessary service to those ecosystems by making sure populations are kept in check.
Like many other animals, moose will face difficult times as the temperatures continue to increase, overheating the animals, causing them to have difficulty finding food, and putting them in a poor position to find a mate. As they get stressed from the heat, they become more susceptible to disease, putting further strain on an already declining population.
The biggest threat that climate change poses to lemurs is habitat destruction. They lose their homes, breeding grounds, and source of food. Lemurs will be extinct by the end of the century if nothing is done to reverse this trend.
Elephants are at risk because of climate change. It is becoming too hot for them to look for food, and warming is also contributing to a dramatic increase in the parasites and diseases that can kill these amazing creatures. As elephants are already at risk because of poachers seeking their ivory tusks, these great creatures simply don't have populations large enough to face this terrible threat.
So what can we do?
There are many wonderful government organizations taking the lead on saving these adorable animals, working with the scientists that know them and their environments best. The best way for citizens like you to help these cute creatures is to support politicians who want what's best for them, are committed to preserving their habitats, and face reality when it comes to the danger of climate change. National Geographic's Photo Ark is also doing great work to inspire people to take action and cataloguing disappearing animals while we have them with us.
Another great way to help is to spread the word that these adorable animals are at risk of disappearing from the Earth forever. One easy way to accomplish this?
Share this article with family and friends, and urge them to stand up for animals.
If you would like to support the National Geographic Photo Ark, click here.
(Cover image credit: Shutterstock.)