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article imageOp-Ed: Climate change in Central America — Wildlife struggles to survive

By Megan Hamilton     Mar 11, 2015 in Environment
Climate change in Central America is affecting wildlife in profound ways, but few places have been as seriously affected as Guatemala's Laguna Del Tigre National Park which suffered a devastating wildfire as the result of an El Niño in 1998.
More than 40 percent of the park was destroyed, meaning that jaguars, tapirs, and peccaries were scrambling to search for areas not touched by the fires. Animals that don't move so fast, like reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates perished, Jeremy Radachowsky LiveScience notes.
A captive jaguar rests in an enclosure at Petro Velho Farm  a refuge of the non-governmental organiz...
A captive jaguar rests in an enclosure at Petro Velho Farm, a refuge of the non-governmental organization NEX in Corumba de Goias, about 80 km from Brasilia, on January 11, 2013
Evaristo Sa, AFP/File
The swift change in climatic conditions left park managers and local communities unprepared. They didn't have the things communities need to face such a crisis and without the organizational structures, the technical capacity, or the flexible financing that might have otherwise helped them to cope a little better. It was no easier for the wildlife and arboreal mammals, including monkeys, anteaters and kinkajous died from smoke inhalation. And although birds can fly, they were devastated as well since the wildfires struck smack in the middle of nesting season.
Throughout Central America, the El Niño held sway. Costa Rica's Parque Nacíonal Corcovado, renowned for it's beautiful forests, normally receives seven meters of rain in a year. Not in 1998, however. Instead, the rains stopped for three solid and seemingly unrelenting months.
In Costa Rica  the Baird s tapir is known as a  danta.   Sometimes it is also called  the mountain c...
In Costa Rica, the Baird's tapir is known as a "danta." Sometimes it is also called "the mountain cow."
Eric Kilby
So it was as Radachowski arrived, having volunteered to serve as a research assistant to track Baird's tapirs in the national park.
He writes:
"After a month passed with no precipitation, park guards at the remote biological station started scratching their heads. After two dry months, they started to become concerned. After the third bone-dry month, they rerouted the water pipes and started rationing water."
While El Tigre burned, Corcovado grew thirsty.
The forest understory withered and the creek beds dried up. The tapirs and peccaries kept close to the rivers and were forced to gnaw on tree roots for nutrition. The El Niño was throwing a temper tantrum.
Finally the rains came, near the end of May and the animals — human and non-human alike — rejoiced, but it was still a stark reminder of the climate change to come.
By the end of 1998's torment, it was the hottest year since regular climate records began. While it hasn't been proven that global warming induces El Niño events, many of the hottest years on record have occurred in El Niño years, and this includes 1998, 2005, and 2010. Last year--2014--is remarkable because it broke all previous climate records and it wasn't even an El Niño year, Radachowsky, now the assistant director for the Latin American and Caribbean at the Wildlife Conservation Society, writes.
The El Niño years have been accompanied by hellish droughts in Central America, Australia, and Indonesia, while other regions — the southwestern United States, Southern South America, and the Horn of Africa have drowned in flooding events. Global warming exacerbates El Niño temper tantrums, making extreme events like 1998's "Super El Niño twice as likely.
Much of Costa Rica's beautiful forests--especially where I live--have been fragmented for cattle pasture and palm oil plantations, but there's also plenty of banana and pineapple plantations, and much of this results in arid landscapes that magnify the problems brought about by global warming. This makes the small patches of forests considerably more flammable than they would be otherwise.
Radachowsky writes:
"Once fires begin in dry, highly flammable forests, aerosols in the smoke bind to water vapor in clouds, creating tiny droplets that cannot join together to form rain drops. Even when conditions are right for precipitation, a smoky, rainless haze hangs over the burning forest as if to tease the burning animals below."
As I sit and contemplate this while drinking my beloved Costa Rican grown coffee, I watch the clouds ascending the slopes of Volcán Turrialba. It is cloud forest such as this, where the effects of climate change in Costa Rica are perhaps the most severely felt, forcing flora and fauna to play games of geographic musical chairs. As Al-Jazeera notes, the warming temperatures are sending the clouds and the creatures into the highlands.
Bat biologist Richard LaVal has been collecting data since the 1970s and it shows that the average minimum temperature in Costa Rica's famed Monteverde cloud forest increased by nearly three degrees Celsius between 1990-2000, and there's the possibility that it may expand the range of lowland species further up into the cooler highlands. Although the average temperature has decreased in recent years, Al-Jazeera reports, the data points to a long-term trend of rising temperatures, according to researchers.
Plants and animals that live in the lowlands are adapted to warmer temperatures, and they have been moving into highland ecosystems where they haven't usually been seen before.
It started with the bats
"We have at least 25 new bat species on the mountain from the tropical lowlands [that] are now here in Monteverde," Vino De Backer, a Belgian zoologist, told Al-Jazeera. He has studied bats in Monteverde under Laval for the past eight years. Most recently, he has focused his research on upward elevation changes when rising temperatures contribute to the upward expansion of lowland species' range.
While collecting data, De Backer discovered that highland bats such as the Toltec fruit-eating bat have moved further up into the high altitudes as temperatures rise in the creature's native range and lowland species move further up into the highlands.
"It's almost half the percentage that it was before," he regarding the Toltec bat. "They are here, but they are retreating to higher elevation."
The data collected by LaVal and De Backer showed that in the early 1970s, the Toltec bat accounted for 26.4 percent of bats collected at Monteverde. Last year, they only accounted for 19.5 percent. Another highland species, the highland yellow-shouldered bat, plunged from 43.2 percent to 22.4 percent between the 1970s-1990s.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Jamaican fruit bat, which is normally a lowland species, went from none in the 1970s to 12.6 percent of the bat specimens caught last year.
"Now they are all over in Monteverde," De Backer said.
I take a last sip of my coffee and watch the Montezuma oropendolas as they hop from one branch to another. These beautiful birds are relatives of orioles but they are considerably larger and have a melodious song. With their sassy, bright yellow tails and white cheek patches, they are the clowns of my garden.
Climate change, however, is affecting them as well, and in some places these talkative birds are wreaking havoc where they haven't been before. In Monteverde, these handsome birds have scarfed up nearly all of Lelo Mata Leiton's orange crop for this year. He noted that there are more squirrels and raccoons--who usually prefer warmer climates--in Monteverde, Al-Jazeera reports.
"Toucans are here now," De Backer said. "Toucans were never here. They were in the lowlands."
Research conducted at the University of Utah demonstrated that keel-billed toucans have indeed moved from the lowlands to the higher-elevation cloud forests. This is bad news for the resplendent quetzal, a resident of the highlands, because these toucans compete with them for nest space in tree cavities and also eat the quetzal's eggs and nestlings.
The awe-inspiring resplendent quetzal.
The awe-inspiring resplendent quetzal.
Peter Förster
I am one of those lucky people who gets to see both the keel-billed toucan and the black-mandibled toucan in my backyard and they are truly amazing birds, sometimes carrying off a whole orange in their huge bills. I have watched them hunting for lizards, so it isn't hard for me to imagine that they can be devastating for nesting birds.
I take my dog for a walk and ponder this. All of the world seems to be in motion in one way or another because of climate change, global warming. Call it whatever you will, but it's here with us.
I don't think I'm going to like it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
More about Climate change, Central america, Wildlife, baird's tapir, resplendent quetzal
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