Biologists are becoming more and more concerned that global climate change will drastically reduce biodiversity. Some biologists estimate that up to 35% of animals and plants could become extinct in the wild by 2050 due to global climate change- less than 30 years!
A 2020 World Wildlife Federation report claims that the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have experienced a 68% decrease since 1970 and freshwater species have declined as much as 84% already. (1)
South Florida and the Everglades is particularly susceptible to the effects of global warming and sea-level rise. Everglades plants and animals will be disproportionally affected as the ocean rises and saltwater infiltrates marshes and floods low-lying habitats.
The Center for Biological Diversity report has compiled a list of 350 species found in the United States and its territories which are threatened by climate change. (2) Ten Everglades species standout among the many Florida species included on the list.
Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi)
The Florida panther is one of the most majestic, large felines in the wild, and tragically, it’s the only large feline remaining in the Southeast. Once abundantly found throughout Southeast United States, it is estimated there are fewer than 120 Florida panthers left in the wild.
Although habitat loss driven by Florida’s burgeoning human population is the greatest threat to Florida panthers, sea-level rise will inundate and eliminate a large portion of the panther’s remaining habitat in Florida’s low-lying Everglades.
Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostrus)
Manatees, sometimes referred to as sea cows, are large, gentle aquatic marine mammals related to elephants that spend much of their time grazing on seagrasses and other vegetation in warm, shallow waters. The current population of manatees in Florida is thought to be between only 1,000 and 3,000.
The leading cause of death among manatees is boat strikes which kill them or leave lethal propeller wounds on the survivors; but starvation is quickly becoming a major cause of death as well. Sea-level rise and changes in water flow that increase water turbidity threaten the manatees’ main food source- the seagrasses that grow in shallow waters. Increased hurricane intensity and storm surge also impact their food supply, leading to starvation as well as impaired manatee health and reproduction.
Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Much knowledge about sea turtle ecology comes from studies of green sea turtles which migrate long distances between feeding grounds and hatching beaches. Sea turtles spend almost all their lives submerged but must breathe air, routinely diving for about five minutes and surfacing to breathe for one to three seconds.
Warming ocean temperatures are leading to mass coral bleaching which damage reef habitats where turtles feed, and changes in ocean currents are altering turtle migrations paths and feeding patterns. Rising sea levels may also inundate nesting beaches and the increased sand temperatures may lead to changes in the sex ratio of hatchling turtles.
Ivory tree coral (Oculina varicosa)
Ivory tree coral is home to various reef fish and considered a keystone species, meaning that its own health indicates the health of the ecosystem around it. These corals have been decimated by destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, which have killed about 30 percent of the population across its range.
Today, corals like the ivory tree are among the species most threatened by greenhouse gas pollution. Warming ocean temperatures create frequent mass bleaching events that lead to widespread coral death and higher risk of disease.
Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium)
The range of the key deer originally encompassed all of the lower Florida Keys but is now limited to a stretch of the Florida Keys from Sugarloaf Key to Bahia Honda Key. Despite a hunting ban imposed in 1939, widespread poaching and habitat destruction caused the subspecies to plummet to near-extinction levels by the 1950s. Strict protection measures have brought numbers up to between 300 and 800 today but global warming brings additional threats.
Rising sea levels and increased storm intensity that may largely eliminate the key deers’ upland habitat on the low-lying Florida Keys. Scientist predict that sea-level rise in this century will virtually eliminate the deers’ upland pine forest and hardwood hammock habitat on Big Pine Key.
Miami blue butterfly (Hemiargus thomasi bethunebakeri)
This small, metallic blue butterfly, native to South Florida, experienced its first major setback in the 1980s when coastal development exploded and Florida’s war on mosquitoes dispersed toxic chemicals throughout the butterflies’ range. Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Florida Keys now houses the only wild population of Miami blues.
Global warming brings additional risks to this seriously imperiled species as sea-level rise threatens to inundate much of its habitat on low-lying Bahia Honda Key, and stronger hurricanes could devastate the remaining small, isolated population.
Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis)
The Cape Sable seaside sparrow isn’t nicknamed the “Goldilocks bird” for nothing: For this little sparrow to survive, its habitat conditions have to be just right.
As sea level rises, the freshwater marshes inhabited by the sparrow are flooding and turning into mud flats and mangrove-dominated marine waters. Increasingly severe hurricanes due to global warming also threaten this birds’ chances for survival, since hurricanes can kill the tiny birds directly or alter the plant communities they rely on.
Choctawhatchee beach mouse (Peromyscus polionotus Allophrys)
Technically, beach mice are not in the Everglades, but they do inhabit sand dunes along the Florida coasts where they burrow and excavate nests. Their burrows typically have a main hole that acts as a front door and a second hole, or back door, often used to escape predators.
That back door, however, won’t be much help in the fight against global warming and rising sea levels. With global warming producing rising tide lines and increasing storm surge, dune ecosystems face challenges, as does this tiny mouse.
Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri)
The Lower Keys marsh rabbit is an endangered subspecies of marsh rabbit with short, dark brown fur and a grayish-white belly. Marsh rabbits are more aquatic than swamp rabbits, taking to water readily, and are excellent swimmers because their hind legs have less fur and longer nails than typical cottontails.
Because they live on low-lying islands, marsh rabbits will lose most of their habitat with even moderate levels of sea-level rise.
Human beings (Homo sapiens)
There are more than 6.8 billion human beings on Earth.
Health and climate scientists believe that global warming is already responsible for approximately 150,000 deaths each year, and they fear that number may well double by 2030. Global warming also contributes to approximately five million human illnesses every year by the increasing spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, creating conditions that lead to potentially fatal malnutrition and diarrhea, and increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, severe storms, and other weather-related disasters. Studies have also found a direct link between rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and respiratory illness and asthma.
Visit the Center for Biological Diversity’s article, 350 Reasons We Need to Get to 350: 350 Species Threatened by Global Warming, to read how climate change is putting numerous species’ very existence at risk and what mechanisms are being triggered to make food webs collapse or habitats become less livable for particular animals or plants. You can read the species’ descriptions and look at photos of the species at risk in your home state through their interactive regional map.