Species Most Likely to Be Affected by Climate Change

Emperor Penguin Colony Above the rest.
Simon Bottomley/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Climate change and global warming are serious threats looming on the horizon, and our entire planet is already beginning to feel the impending effects of this massive, yet gradual, alteration of the earth's environment.

"Humans are not the only ones whose fate is at stake … some of our favorite species are also taking the fall for our CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions," says Wendy Foden, co-author of the Species and Climate Change report published by the IUCN.

"This report should act as a wake-up call to governments to make real commitments to cut CO2 emissions if we are to avoid a drastically changed natural world. We simply don't have the time for drawn-out political wrangling. We need strong commitments and we need them now."

Contrary to common opinion, the impacts of climate change are not confined to arctic and subarctic regions. In tropical seas, coral reefs are already suffering damaging bleaching due to by rising water temperatures and increased ocean acidification as a result of too much CO2 in the oceans.

An increase in global CO2 levels also threatens the world's plants, which are critical to creating habitat structure that animals (and humans) need to survive.

In 2009, the IUCN profiled nine animals that are most likely to be affected by climate change, and the Wilderness Conservation Society followed up with its own list of Species Facing the Heat.

"Several of the species highlighted in the report are already listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, due to other threats such as habitat destruction or over-harvesting," says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of IUCN's Species Program. "Others are not currently threatened on the IUCN Red List but will be very soon as the effects of climate change materialize. For a large portion of biodiversity, climate change is an additional and major threat."

Below are animals listed by both the IUCN and the Wilderness Conservation Society as well as the reasons that each are particularly at risk.

Emperor Penguin

Reduction in shelf ice may result in shortages of krill which reside under the ice and are a major food source for penguins. Additionally, ice loss results in shrinking breeding areas for these animals. 

Ringed Seal

Ice loss results in shrinking breeding areas for ringed seals. 

Arctic Fox

Increased competition from red foxes that are moving farther into tundra habitat as temperature rise and ice melts. 

Beluga Whale

Increased human disturbance will occur as ice melts, allowing increased boat travel in beluga habitat. 

Staghorn Coral

Coral skeletons are dissolving due to the increased acidification of the oceans. 


Acidic water disrupts the fish's sense of smell, impairing their ability to find anemones on which they rely for protection from predators.


Warmer water temperatures deplete the oxygen in breeding streams, increasing susceptibility to disease and disrupting breeding activities.


Increased CO2 in the atmosphere depletes the nutritional content of Eucalyptus leaves which koalas eat, increasing the risk of malnutrition and starvation.

Leatherback Turtle

Rising temperatures of beach sand where turtles lay eggs causes dramatic imbalances in the sex ratios of turtle hatchlings (eventually there may be mostly females who are unable to find mates). Rising sea levels and increased storm activity also destroys turtle nesting habitats.


Reduction in the size and quality of the tropical and semi-tropical wetland habitat inhibits successful breeding and rearing of young.

Irawaddy Dolphin

Changes in water flow and salinity in Bangladesh and Southeast Asian river habitats threaten the survival of one of the world's four freshwater dolphin species. 

Musk Ox

Predatory grizzly bears will be able to expand their range into historically icy musk-ox habitat due to global warming.


Warm, dry weather trends are a serious threat to wolverines, which require deep springtime snow for denning and raising their young.