Will humans remain forever on this planet? Will our species survive impending changes that will inevitably take place in our world? If humans disappear as the environment changes, what animals would thrive?
Finally, it has become common knowledge (finally) that our environment is in dire shape. The Earth has already warmed considerably over the course of the last 150 years or so, with consequences ranging from rising sea levels to the severe endangerment of numerous species.
There are now so many warnings coming from the scientific community about how little time we have to preserve our habitat that it’s challenging to keep track of them. The bottom line is that irreversible damage has already occurred, and we don’t have long to prevent some grisly worst-case scenarios.
However, one interesting thing about how we tend to process all of this is that we look at those worst-case scenarios from a human-centric perspective. That’s not to say we don’t want to save the penguins, polar bears, and trees down the street. But consideration of the worst-case scenarios typically boils down to the selfish question: Can human society thrive in the climate we’re creating? This may well be the most important question. But because we are (rightly) so focused on it, we rarely consider another:
What life on Earth could thrive in the climate we risk creating?
Much as we like to think of ourselves and our little sphere of the galaxy as being inextricably linked, nothing could be further from the truth. And if, in fact, we are no longer here one day –– either because we’ve perished or abandoned ship and taken to outer space –– there will be plenty happening on Earth without us. It’s morbid to think about and certainly not a desirable outcome, but an interesting one to consider nonetheless.
So let’s look at a few species that could thrive as humans, and many other animals, are driven from Earth due to uninhibited warming and resulting climate changes.
Unfortunately –– at least regarding summer trips to the beach –– we’re already seeing evidence that our warming planet suits jellyfish nicely. They tend to prefer warmer waters, and there are already countless reports of their “expanding territory” due to shifting ocean temperatures.
Jellyfish are also able to thrive in ocean water with less oxygen in it, which we’ll see more of if climate change continues apace. For these simple reasons, there’s little doubt that these fascinating animals will continue to dominate large swaths of the ocean in the short term. Whether or not they can sustain or build upon that dominance will depend on whether their sources of food –– various small organisms ranging from plankton to tiny fish and crustaceans –– stick around as well.
Pleasant club taking over the Earth, yes? Well, whether or not the thought is appealing, mosquitoes are among the most likely animals to thrive on a warmer planet. Already, they thrive in hot, sticky tropical climates and are said to do best in temperatures over 60 degrees (and preferably around 80).
Additionally, while they’ll undoubtedly miss us once we’re gone, mosquitoes feed on far more than human blood; they leech nourishment off all manner of living things, from animals to flowers, to bacteria in the water (which there will be all the more of). We may well be putting together an ideal environment for mosquitoes to thrive in.
As much as we focus on temperature, carbon levels, and rising seas, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change (and summarized in Scientific American) found that another consequence of climate change appears to be faster wind (and not only in extreme weather events).
It’s been suggested, in turn, that this can benefit sea birds like albatrosses in that it can help them to fly faster and, by extension, give them more time to hunt. That has already reportedly yielded more breeding success and growing body mass for the birds. These factors –– coupled with the fact that birds typically adapt well to heat –– suggest that sea birds could be poised to thrive.
We covered mosquitoes already, but it is also worth pointing out that insects –– as an entire category –– are likely to do well with climate change. And the reason, in this case, is simple: They’ve basically done it before. Specific estimates as to the origins of insects vary, but it’s a virtual certainty that they were here 400 million years ago (if not more).
This means they’ve survived numerous mass extinction events, as well as far hotter periods in Earth’s history (with charts at Climate.gov showing clearly that for much of the time of the insects, the average temperature has been much higher than it is now). In other words, roaches, termites, and many of their crawling kin are going to be just fine.
Some years ago, the New York Times ran a blog post titled, “Bracing for a Bullfrog Invasion.” Going so far as to compare them to infamous conquistador Hernan Cortes, the article framed bullfrogs as fearsome invaders –– migrating as needed based on shifting temperatures, hunting everything from bugs to bats, and even spreading diseases that kill off other amphibians.
The long and short of it is that these seemingly innocent, even comical creatures are killers and have demonstrated a capacity to simply move as needed into new environments and dominate them. Coupled with their indiscriminate diets, this positions them well to survive climate change, one way or another.
Undoubtedly these examples only scratch the surface. But they do begin to give us a potential glimpse of something we rarely bother to think about: the life that will remain on Earth when we’re long gone.
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