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Jan 152010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

The polar bear is the high-profile furry face of animals threatened by climate change. With Arctic ice melting at an increasing pace — due to global warming — its range and habitat is disappearing.

But, the polar bear is just one of many species endangered by a warming planet and other man-made threats. Beyond the tragedy of extinction of a species is the chain reaction in the environment triggered by that loss.

That complex web of life that connects people, animals, plants and places is known as biodiversity, and is the underpinning of life on Earth. To raise awareness of its importance to the planet, the United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.

Courtesy IUCN / Staghorn coral thicket © L De Vantier

Courtesy IUCN / Staghorn coral thicket © L De Vantier

The IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature – is a key group  trying to drive that message home. The IUCN is the oldest and largest environmental group in the world. As part of their mission they maintain the Red List, which tracks the status of thousands of species and subspecies.

Their most recent update of that list finds that of the more than 47,000 species studied, 17,291 are threatened with extinction.

To bring more attention to other animals on that long list, the IUCN has released a report on 10 creatures whose future is threatened.

Like the polar bear, many of these 10 are familiar – and lovable – faces. Others may lack cute faces, but are of equal importance in the global circle of life.

The report, Species and Climate Change: More than Just the Polar Bear takes a close look at ringed seals, leatherback turtles, emperor penguins, koalas, staghorn corals, clownfish, Arctic foxes, salmon, quiver trees and beluga whales.

1) Staghorn coral

These coral (pictured above)  make up about 1/5 of the Earth’s reefs, and those reefs are essential to the survival of a rainbow of fish and other aquatic life. People, too, rely on that marine life for food. Coral reefs protect coastlines from erosion, provide cover for fish and keep eco-tourists snorkeling and scuba diving.

The threats: bleaching, acid erosion and weakened health.

Rising ocean temperatures cause coral to lose the algae it requires for life, and to prevent disease. Bleaching occurs when the coral become nutrient deprived and unable to protect themselves from solar radiation. Warmer and more acidic waters, both caused by global warming triggered by increased carbon dioxide in the air,  make coral more susceptible to bleaching, because they live within a narrow temperature band. Bleached coral  becomes white and dies. Today, about 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs are damaged.

Some coral may be able to adapt to warmer water, but that process is slower than the rate the temperature is rising, the report says.