Climate Action

Anxious gorillas, thirsty koalas and lame cows - how climate change is making animals miserable

A baby western lowland gorilla touches on his mother's face at the primate sanctuary run by the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund in Mefou National Park, just outside the capital Yaounde, March 21, 2009. The United Nations has designated 2009 as the year of the gorilla and has launched efforts across Africa to preserve the endangered species found in central African nations including Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (CAMEROON ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS IMAGE OF THE DAY TOP PICTURE) - GM1E53M07I301

A dark cloud over the animal kingdom. Image: REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Briony Harris
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Future of the Environment

From wildfires in California to devastating floods in South Asia, we all know the effects of climate change on human habitats: precious belongings swept away; lungs scorched from smoke inhalation; lives to piece back together.

But what about the fallout for animals? Research shows that rising temperatures and increased humidity are leading to high levels of stress and other health problems for both wildlife and livestock. Like us, animals are often forced to flee their homes during extreme weather events. Unlike us, they may not be able to adapt to new habitats without intervention.

1. Endangered mountain gorillas are getting anxious

A mountain gorilla sits in the forest on the slopes of Mount Mikeno in the Virunga National Park, Eastern DRC December 12, 2008. REUTERS/Peter Andrews (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO) - GM1E4CD0A2L01
These gorillas are threatened by rising temperatures as well as hunters and war Image: Reuters/Peter Andrews

Virunga gorillas - a fragile population living in cloud-topped mountains in Africa’s Great Lakes region - already face threats from human activity like hunting and war. Now, climate change could be putting them at even greater risk, according to a new study published in the Ecology and Evolution scientific journal.

Over two years, researchers collected fecal samples from 115 Virunga gorillas. They found that the animals’ stress levels were raised during periods of high temperatures and heavy rainfall - both signs of global warming. “Mountain gorillas might be more sensitive to warming trends than previous research has suggested, since their small habitat restricts their ability to seek out colder temperatures,” the authors of the study report. The long-term impact from this level of stress could be falling fertility levels for these endangered creatures.

With temperatures in the region expected to rise by up to 3.6 degrees by 2090, and more extreme rainfall expected, the gorillas’ survival may depend on humans adopting flexible conservation strategies.

2. Too hot to stand: why heat stress is contributing to lameness in cows

Extreme heat caused by climate change is changing the eating habits of cattle - sometimes affecting their health so much that they could become lame within just a few weeks.

When it’s extra-hot outside, heat-stressed animals lose interest in their food. They make up for it later by eating too much once temperatures cool. This can lead to a digestive disorder called acidosis, which is sometimes called “grain overload”. The heat can also lead to heavy breathing; which means that cows don’t have enough carbon dioxide or bicarbonate. This can lead to them getting ulcers or fungal infections in their hooves, and ultimately lameness within weeks.

Heat stress can interfere with metabolism and lead to a poor immune system, disease, and even death. The only way to prevent this is with good heat management, like using fans and sprinklers to keep cattle cool - something that will be harder to keep up if temperatures continue to rise.

How high temperatures can make animals sick.
How high temperatures can make animals sick. Image: Animal Frontiers
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3. Climate change is making koalas thirstier

Australia’s much-loved koalas are also suffering from rising temperatures, according to the Koala Habitat Conservation Plan produced by WWF-Australia. “Climate change is making Australia’s normally challenging weather for koalas more extreme by exacerbating droughts, heat stress and bushfires. This kills koalas, whether directly, such as by overheating and dehydration, or indirectly by degrading the eucalypt forests they live in. Leaf-eating animals are susceptible to declines in foliage quality, nutrient levels and water availability,” the report explains.

Water stations are a welcome sight for thirsty koalas in Australia.
Water stations are a welcome sight for thirsty koalas in Australia. Image: University of Sydney

Long dry spells have made it harder for koalas to get enough water through their normal source - juicy eucalyptus leaves. A study from the University of Sydney tried giving koalas access to free drinking water sources. Cameras showed koalas drinking from the water stations 400 times in a year.

The research led to the Government of New South Wales installing water stations for koalas to help get them through heatwaves and droughts. Known as “Blinky Drinkers”, the stations are monitored by cameras as part of the region’s Save Our Species program: proof that, with a little help from their human friends, animals can weather the worst effects of global warming.

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