A new feature for the blog: an irregular look at endangered species and how climate change is predicted to further affect them.
Manatees are native to Florida, and have no native predators there. They are endangered because they are slow-moving and thus easy victims to propellor strikes from boats, and also because their food supplies are threatened by toxic pollutants and climate change.
Some individuals have tried to simplify the effects of climate change on manatees by assuming that warmer waters will benefit the species.
However, as the previous paragraphs discussed, climate change is comprised of many more facets than just increasing water temperatures. We also cannot forget that manatees are part of an inter-connected aquatic ecosystem, and are affected by the health of the plants and animals that share this and the surrounding terrestrial ecosystems.
As a species, manatees already face a myriad of threats, including watercraft strikes and red tide, which may compromise the long-term health of individuals and impede recovery of the species. As humans adapt to climate change, other species, including manatees, are likely to be adversely affected.
While some have postulated that increased sea surface temperatures associated with climate change may benefit manatees, this view fails to recognize how the species may be affected by the myriad of other consequences associated with climate change, including sea level rise, changes in seagrass abundance and location, and losses of funding as agencies shift resources away from individual species in an attempt to confront climate change.
The last sentence is the crucial one. The planet has already lost a staggering amount of biodiversity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution started churning toxins into the environment at an unprecedented rate, and now we are starting to see staple food crops become threatened as well as seeing ecosystems wildly unbalanced by our over-predation of food animals and displacement of competing apex predators – just look at the effects of losing (and then repopulating) the Yellowstone Wolves on willows, cottonwoods and aspens in the Park for an example of how much an ecosystem can change according to the active predators in the region – more wolves means more trees.
As climate change reduces global food supplies, the apex predators will be the first to die out (because at the top of the food chain the dependence on protein is so high). We don’t know exactly how most ecosystems will adjust to losing them. The potential for cascading catastrophe is enormous, especially if current threat mitigation programs are defunded in order to concentrate on climate threats alone.
We are close to tipping points for so many local ecosystem aspects of what humans need to be a sustainable global ecology. Dont’ be complacent.