Three Pennsylvania official state animals are vulnerable to climate change | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three Pennsylvania official state animals are vulnerable to climate change

click to enlarge The Eastern Hellbender
The Eastern Hellbender

The signs of a rapidly changing Pennsylvania climate are upon us; 2018 was the wettest year in Pittsburgh’s history and so far, 2019 is not far behind. The summers are getting longer and the autumns are getting shorter.

Scientific consensus says climate change is exacerbated by human activity and as Pennsylvanians drive cars more, continue to drill and refine natural gas, and burn coal, it is likely to only get warmer and wetter faster. These activities damage human populations with more frequent flooding, adverse effects on crops, and more intense storms. But beyond the human toll, Pennsylvania wildlife is also suffering under the shifting climate. 

Some species are more vulnerable than others. As the climate changes, some animals may disappear from the commonwealth permanently, and other new species might move in. This can cause an ecological ripple effect that could drastically change the state. Fewer birds mean fewer dispersed seeds, fewer trees, less shade for fish in streams that need it. Not even scientists can predict just how significant the damage could be. 

So, if you are hoping to glimpse or hear some of your favorite Pennsylvania critters anytime soon, here are the ones, including two official state animals, that might not stick around the area forever. 


Amphibians

Pennsylvania just recently named the Eastern hellbender as the official state amphibian, but climate change could likely do a number on the large salamander. According to the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Foundation (PNHF), the hellbender is listed as extremely vulnerable under the group’s climate change vulnerability index. 

Amphibians in general are extremely vulnerable to climate change and pollution since they absorb oxygen through their skin and typically live in very wet places like streams, swamps, and ponds. The hellbenders’ need for clean water and a greener environment was a big reason why the state recently awarded it official state amphibian status.

In addition, the hellbender, the Eastern spadefoot toad, the mountain chorus frog, and the widely distributed Jefferson salamander are also vulnerable to climate change, according to PNHF.


Birds

The Pennsylvania state bird, the ruffed grouse, has suffered over the years thanks to habitat loss, which is partially driven by climate change, according to a 2016 article in the Centre Daily Times of Centre County. 

The ruffed grouse loves snow and lives in areas of Pennsylvania that have snow cover for most of winter. But as the climate warms, these areas are becoming more sparse. 

Ed Zygmunt, a hunter and National Wildlife Federation member from Susquehanna County, told the Daily Times he rarely even sees ruffed grouse on hunting trips anymore. “I can’t bear to shoot any more grouse because their population is so declined,” Zygmunt said. “Hunters are giving up even going out for them.”

Another bird losing habitat as the climate warms is the black-capped chickadee. The small black-and-white bird can be found in most parts of Pennsylvania, excluding the southeast, but is being replaced by the Carolina chickadee, whose range is expanding from the south. 

This southern shift will likely bring several new bird species into Pennsylvania. According to the PNHF, populations of birds like the blue-winged warbler, wood thrush, and Henslow’s sparrow are likely to increase thanks to climate change. The state also might become a migration stop for the tundra swan. 

Insects

Some might want to see fewer insects, but what Pennsylvanians might miss is the West Virginia white butterfly. The small, lily-white butterfly is associated with cooler and higher altitude sites in the commonwealth. As those sites become warmer, it becomes harder for the West Virginia white to survive. 


Fish

According to a 2008 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the state fish of Pennsylvania, the brook trout, could become a victim of climate change. 

The UCS reports states that the brook trout and smallmouth bass are “particularly sensitive” to the warming that increased air temperatures and changes rain patterns, which can drive up water temperatures and alter the flow of some streams. 

The brook trout is the only trout species native to Pennsylvania waters and it requires cooler waters that are often shaded by hemlock trees and mountain laurel. Climate change could reduce the amount of these trees near streams were brook trout live.   


Reptiles

While not found in the Pittsburgh area, the bog turtle inhabits flatter parts of the state like southeastern, central, and northwestern Pennsylvania. According to PNHF, the bog turtle is highly vulnerable to climate change because it will be difficult for the turtle population to push north as the climate warms. 

The small turtle is specialized to, unsurprisingly, bogs. Those swampy, wet flatlands aren’t very common in the Appalachian Mountains. The bog turtle could be trapped in an ecosystem that is warming too fast for it to adapt to.

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