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No Borders For These Critters: Climate Change Spurs a Great Migration

Peter Rugh Aug 14

Issue 249

Climate change will have a profound impact on where people live and work in the 21st century. In fact, it already is. Researchers have identified climate change-induced drought as an underlying cause of the Syrian Civil War, which has displaced millions. The Maldives Islands are sinking due to climbing sea levels. Then there’s the descendants of the Biloxi, Chitimacha and Choctaw American Indians on the Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana. Battered by increasingly severe storms and with rising waters eroding their soil, they are being forced to flee land their ancestors, escaping reservation life, settled in the 1830s.

But humans aren’t the only Earthlings on the move. By paw, wing and fin, a great migration is underway. Even plants and trees are getting in on the act. As emissions of greenhouse gases continue to heat up the planet, a whole host of species are hitting the road in search of more hospitable environs. Their changes of address will have a profound impact on the ecosystems they leave behind, the new homes they adopt and life for us homo sapiens.

Inside Climate News has put together a manifest of the critters and fauna hitting the highway so you can keep track of their comings and goings. Here are some highlights. Illustrations by Tiffany Pai.

Bald Eagle

Though they’re America’s national symbol, bald eagles prefer to summer in Canada. They’re fond of carrion and fish, and revel in swiping captured prey away from other birds. Benjamin Franklin, who was partial to the wild turkey, accused them of not making their living honestly.

Hunting and pesticides greatly reduced the eagle population in the 20th century, but with the 1972 ban of DDT, along with conservation efforts, the raptor made a comeback and was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Shrinking ice cover, however, means the birds are heading north to nest sooner. Earlier foraging times mean increased exposure to contaminants. Man-made toxins could once again be the bird’s undoing, and leave the United States without a fine-feathered thief for its insignia.

Douglas Fir

Doug’s favorite holiday is Christmas. That’s when his green branches are decked with lights and presents for children surround his trunk. Yet, despite his fondness for Jesus’ birthday, Doug’s a tree of all seasons. An evergreen, he makes his home in the Pacific Northwest, but as Western North America heats up and dries, and his habitat shrinks, he is spreading his seed inland.

Lobster

Succulent when boiled alive and doused in butter, our delicious friend has all but left these New York shores in search of colder waters. Perhaps it’s an instinctive paranoia that sets off the crustacean’s stress levels, a suspicion that the water it is wading in might be a chef’s pot, but once temperatures rise above 68 degrees, it’s bye-bye lobster. Between 1996 and 2014, the amount of lobster netted in New York fell by 97.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Maine’s lobster population is booming. The late David Foster Wallace, a man greatly concerned with the ethics of slaughtering the claw-limbed delicacy, described the state’s annual Lobster Fest as “something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.” Yet Maine’s days of living high on the lobster are numbered. Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are expected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Northward they must go, but Canadian bon vivants shouldn’t rejoice yet. Lobsters are adapting to ocean acidification with thicker shells. Their meat might be much harder to get at by the next century.

Succulent when boiled alive and doused in butter, our delicious friend has all but left these New York shores in search of colder waters. Perhaps it’s an instinctive paranoia that sets off the crustacean’s stress levels, a suspicion that the water it is wading in might be a chef’s pot, but once temperatures rise above 68 degrees, it’s bye-bye lobster. Between 1996 and 2014, the amount of lobster netted in New York fell by 97.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Maine’s lobster population is booming. The late David Foster Wallace, a man greatly concerned with the ethics of slaughtering the claw-limbed delicacy, described the state’s annual Lobster Fest as “something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest.” Yet Maine’s days of living high on the lobster are numbered. Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine are expected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Northward they must go, but Canadian bon vivants shouldn’t rejoice yet. Some research suggests lobsters are adapting to ocean acidification with thicker shells. Their meat might be much harder to get at by the next century.

Arctic Shrew

Solitary and parasite-riddled, the shrew is often overshadowed by flashier arctic creatures like the caribou and the polar bear. But the shrew has insight to offer the shrewd observer. Modeling diets and parasite colonies from decades-old shrew specimens and comparing them to their present-day descendants, scientists have found a climate bellwether in the pint-sized rodent. As the climate warms, their habitats are shifting.

Examining two subspecies of shrew, researchers have found that as the planet heats the masked shrew’s habitat is expanding from the south and its parasites are intermingling with those of its more northern cousin, the barren ground Shrew. Scientists warn disease will spread as the two relatives increasingly greet one another, potentially reaching other animals as well.

Blacklegged Tick

You don’t want one of these vampires landing in your hidden places. Latching on to scalps, armpits and crotches during the summer months, blacklegs, also known as deer ticks, spread Lyme disease, which causes fever and fatigue and turns deadly if left untreated. All it takes is a day and a half or two for transmission to be complete. Warming temperatures and longer summers have allowed blacklegs to flourish. Once rare, Lyme disease is now the fifth most common illness in America. Blacklegs are expanding their territory too, which now stretches into Canada, where there were 2,025 reported cases of Lyme disease in 2017, up from 144 in 2009.