Are Large Carnivores Doomed by Climate Change?


The world is getting warmer, creating an extinction threat for many species. According to NASA, since 1880 the Earth’s global temperature has risen by nearly one degree Celsius. However, not all species are equally affected by climate change. And as wildlife biologists such as Aldo Leopold discovered nearly a century ago, not all species are equally important ecologically. Large carnivores play a lead role in maintaining resilient, biodiverse ecosystems because they control their prey, which indirectly improves habitat for other species. Today, some of these ecologically powerful carnivores are highly vulnerable to climate change.

Global Warming Since 1880, Courtesy NASA

In our rapidly warming world, species have two choices: they can adapt or go extinct. A species’ natural history determines its ability to adapt–and its extinction risk. This means that a “generalist” species with a high reproductive rate, high dispersal, and a diverse, flexible diet can adapt more easily than a species with a low reproductive rate, low dispersal, and a restricted diet.

Additionally, how we manage wildlife contributes to extinction. Hunting and trapping (called “take”) puts additive pressure on species already facing survival challenges due to climate change. According to ecologist Scott Creel, the rapid worldwide decline of large carnivores that are hunted and trapped is of high concern because of the negative consequences this has on ecosystem structure and function.

Large carnivore species vulnerable to climate change share some key traits. These bellwethers are solitary individuals that have a low reproductive rate, high intra-species competition, and a Northern Hemisphere distribution. On the other hand, species relatively impervious to global warming, such as the wolf and coyote, have a high reproductive rate, broad diet, and can thrive in diverse habitat from deserts to mountains. Similarly, the cougar and jaguar, which have broad dietary and habitat needs, don’t face —> Read More