Conservation and Biodiversity

10 iconic species threatened by climate change

Through climate change, we have irrevocably upset the balance of nature — humans are driving one million species to extinction, according to a United Nations-backed report last year.

For 2020, Earth Day Network’s Conservation and Biodiversity program is focusing on protecting 10 of these endangered or vulnerable species. This month, we asked you, the public, to vote on 10 umbrella species.

The results are in, and the species below — all currently endangered or vulnerable with populations declining into endangerment — will serve as rallying points for Earth Day’s global conservation efforts. See how each of these species fare and how they’re threatened by human activities and climate change.

North Atlantic Right Whale

Fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales remain, making them one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Should these whales go extinct, we would lose both a vital part of the ocean’s food chain and their contribution to nutrient mixing.

The whales are threatened by ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, as well as warming oceans that cause low reproductive rates and poor health. These warmer oceans also decrease populations of the North Atlantic Right Whale’s main food source, copepods. And while the whales are adapting by migrating south for food, this migration could further increase their susceptibility to ships and fishing gear.  


Axolotls are abundant in captivity but nearly extinct in the wild due to shrinking habitats. The axolotl’s only surviving natural habitat, the Xochimilco canals in Mexico, are heavily polluted, and water levels are extremely low from water consumption in Mexico City. Around 35 individuals per square kilometer were recently recorded in the Xochimilco canals, compared to the 6,000 per square kilometer recorded in 1998.

Non-native large fish also threaten the axolotl’s population— carp and tilapia were introduced into the axolotl’s native habitat to increase the local people’s protein consumption, but these large fish are predators to the axolotl and pose a serious competitive threat. 

Monarch butterfly

Most of us know the Monarch butterfly from its impressive migration, a route that spans up to 3,000 miles from Mexico to the Canadian border. But these North American travelers are in trouble: Their population has declined by 90% since 1990.

This decline is linked primarily to habitat destruction. We’ve converted most of the butterfly’s central migratory grassland for agriculture or urban development. Climate change also throws off their migratory timing, posing serious long-term risks for the survival of our favorite orange and black insects.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherbacks face threats both on land and in the ocean, almost entirely manmade. Because of rising sea levels and urban development, these sea turtles have less beach on which to lay eggs and are subject to egg harvesting from locals, both of which severely limits their populations.

Once in the water, if they make it that far, leatherbacks are at risk of getting entangled in fishing gear or dying from ingesting plastic debris. 

Great Hammerhead

As an apex predator, the great hammerhead maintains balance across the food chain. But climate change is driving these sharks to extinction. As an ectothermic species, the hammerhead’s body temperature is affected by the surrounding water temperature, and warming oceans are driving it toward the poles.

Ocean acidification is leading to rapid population decline, as juveniles are unable to survive early life in more acidic conditions. Hunting, overfishing and bycatch, and shark-finning for shark fin soup also threaten these hammerheads.

Asian Elephant

Asian Elephants, which number about 500,000 worldwide, are threatened most by habitat loss and fragmentation caused by urban development, industry, farming and mining. These practices have confined this species to smaller forests, affecting migratory patterns.

This confinement puts the elephant at a higher risk for extinction from natural disasters, disease and inbreeding. Poaching and illegal wildlife trade, though banned by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, are also major threats. 

Giant Sequoia

Giant sequoias, despite their massive size and 3,000-year lifespan, are not resilient enough to stave off climate change. Warming temperatures and drier climate cause major stress to these trees, leaving them more vulnerable to wildfires and invasive species.

Bark beetles — insects that thrive in warmer weather — cut off sequoias’ nutrient circulation. Scientists worry that these bark beetle infestations can permanently damage the population of giant sequoias because it takes 500 years for each tree to grow into adulthood.

African Penguin

The African penguin regulates small shoals of fish and provides a food source for larger predators. Unfortunately, this food chain is under threat by pollution, overfishing, energy production and mining, as well as climate change and severe weather patterns.

These penguins’ main food sources, sardines and anchovies, are shifting their range eastward due to warming ocean temperatures and changes in salinity. Alarmingly, African Penguins declined by an estimated 95% between 2001 and 2011.

Coral Reefs 

Coral reefs are a vitally important ecosystem, providing shelter for fishes and invertebrates, buffering waves that erode coasts and supporting a $375 billion tourism industry. Unfortunately, ocean acidification and warming temperatures are stunting coral growth and breaking down structures.

These changing conditions put stress on coral reefs, leading to increased numbers of coral bleaching events and susceptibility to infectious diseases. Other factors like rising ocean levels, extreme weather events and altered ocean circulation patterns can also destroy coral reefs.

Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, thought to hold at least 10% of the planet’s known biodiversity. Deforestation, combined with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall from climate change, however, put this special ecosystem at risk.

This past summer, thousands of acres burned in wildfires that went largely unregulated by the Brazilian government. And climate change makes this fragile ecosystem even more vulnerable, degrading freshwater systems, destroying valuable soil and spreading invasive species and infectious diseases.