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30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there

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denisbin // Flickr

30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there

At no other time in human history has the natural world shifted so rapidly locally and globally. With climate change, species extinctions, and related destabilizing events and disasters, one of the most critical ways to support the recovery and health of people and the planet is by tracking natural ecosystems.

Ecosystems are a particular suite of organisms that evolved with each other and their natural environment that, together, function in certain key and measurable ways. When parts of the living and/or physical system are degraded, those changes can be measured. These measurements offer immense value in knowing what areas need protection and help, and why.

To highlight ecosystems at risk around the world, Stacker consulted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In addition to evaluating species through its main Red List, the IUCN compiles assessments of critical habitats on the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. Thirty of these ecosystems are included in this story; we chose systems that were evaluated on a global level; for local assessment levels, we focused on ecosystems classified as endangered or worse. Of the 30 included, more than half—17 in all—are found in Australia. This is an important indicator of the rapidly deteriorating state of Australia’s natural world in the face of its recent, massive bushfires.

The IUCN’s assessments, gathered from 2013 to 2019 and released in 2019, track “species, their interactions, and the ecological processes they depend on” to asses each ecosystem’s overall health. The risk of an ecosystem’s collapse is affected by measurable criteria like shrinking or limited species distributions, declines in environmental quality, and disturbances to natural biological processes.

There are eight different categories of risk, with the top three in considered “under threat”: Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Least Concern, Data Deficient, Not Evaluated, and Collapsed.

Keep reading to learn about 30 ecosystems at risk and the endangered species that live there.

[Pictured: Daintree rainforest, Australia.]

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Arian Zwegers // Flickr

Aral Sea

- Location: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
- IUCN risk category: collapsed
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The Aral Sea is among the largest inland bodies of water in the world, but it has shrunk to almost a quarter its former size in just 50 years. Although people used its waters to irrigate its two main river deltas for 5,000 years in balance with this ecosystem, beginning in the mid-20th century, water extraction skyrocketed as people began to irrigate much more land, including the surrounding desert.

The once rich and unique assemblages of native species of fish, birds, mammals, invertebrates, and plants, plummeted; the lake shrank and split into smaller lakes; the water and climate system of the region destabilized; and dust stirred up from the dried out seafloor is related to major human health problems in the area. Even the non-native species that once competed with the native species, have mostly died out as the region dries out, and the waters grow much saltier as freshwater supply has dropped off catastrophically.

[Pictured: Aral Sea, Uzbekestan.]

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Hullwarren // Wikimedia Commons

Coorong lagoons and Murray Mouth inverse estuary

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The coastal wetland of the Coorong lagoons and Murray Mouth is the only example of an inverse estuary in the world; it’s considered a region of international importance. The estuary is “inverse” because it is filled by mostly freshwater from Australia’s largest river (as opposed to mostly saltwater from the sea in a typical estuary). The lagoons contain an astonishing array of habitat and species diversity specific to the great diversity of ecosystem types—scientists have measured at least eight distinct ecosystem states for the Coorong. These range from freshwater to salty, to super salty; all of these support different species of fish, birds, seagrasses, invertebrates, and others.

The area is considered endangered—to critically endangered—because there is so much water extraction, diversion, and development. Scientists have shown that with current land and water use, the area’s ecosystems are likely to collapse, and if climate change causes the area to dry out further, collapse is virtually unavoidable.

[Pictured: Coorong lagoons, Australia.]

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John Game // Flickr

Gnarled mossy cloud forest, Lord Howe Island

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The gnarled mossy cloud forest of Lord Howe Island in the Pacific Ocean off the east coast of Australia is critically endangered for two main reasons: It’s tiny and exists only on two mountaintops, one island contains its unique ecosystem and climate change is impacting the cloud cover and rainfall that creates the physical conditions of the ecosystem.

Another key issue is the non-native rats preying on native plant and tree species that exist only in the cloud forest. However, scientists say removing rats would allow recovery; its climate change that is a much larger concern since changes in rain and clouds will affect whether the mosses, plants, and trees there can grow at all.

[Pictured: Cloud Forest, Lord Howe Island.]

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Travel Telly // Shutterstock

Gonakier forests of Senegal river floodplain

- Location: Senegal and Mauritania
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The Gonakier Forests of the Senegal river floodplain in Australia exist solely because of the way the river’s floodplains interact with rainfall: normally the region experiences months’ long flood conditions each year. Only a certain suite of trees and other species can survive these prolonged flood conditions. The dominant tree species is called Acacia nilotica, known commonly as Gonakier.

This unique situation historically meant that only a certain set of species could live and thrive in this unique forest, now considered to be critically endangered. Rainfall is changing as a result of climate change, and the extensive and rapid changes to water use have drastically cut the amount of water reaching these habitats. Further, people have cut many of the former Gonakier forests areas for agriculture and wood burning.

[Pictured: Lapwing bird in Diawling National Park, Mauritania.]

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Adelbayoumi // Wikimedia Commons

Lake Burullus

- Location: Egypt
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Lake Burullus’ wetland ecosystem has been threatened by nutrient effluents, changes in land use, nearby agriculture, pollution, and surrounding development. Ninety-seven percent of the water coming into the lake is from untreated agricultural wastewater, upstream sewage, and discharge from fish farms, complicating efforts to protect the important wetland.

[Pictured: Lake Burullus, Egypt.]

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Magda van Dyck // Shutterstock

Southern Benguela upwelling ecosystem

- Location: South Africa
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Upwelling is a vast oceanic region known to support a profound richness of life, thanks to a continual influx of nutrients, or “upwelling” ocean currents. The Southern Benguela upwelling ecosystem off the coast of South Africa has changed considerably since measurements began, in ways that show human impacts via fishing pressure on the most abundant fish stocks.

For example, in the 1980s, according to ICES Journal of Marine Science, anchovy were more abundant than sardines, but that changed with fishing pressure. Dominant species changed again and again in response to fishing pressure, with jellyfish becoming the dominant species at times. Now the upwelling ecosystem is also impacted by climate change effects on ocean temperatures and currents, according to PLoS ONE.

[Pictured: Cape Point, South Africa.]

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Dale Smith // Wikimedia Commons

Coolibah – Black Box woodlands

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The Coolibah—Black Box Woodlands—is another unique Australian region, this one a mixed, forest-shrub-grassland. Eucalyptus coolabah is the most common tree and a defining species of this endangered ecosystem. The specific groups of trees, shrubs, and grasses that arise and establish in the many areas of the region depend on the rainfall and the flooding. This ecosystem has areas with standing water and tree hollows, which many species of animal and birds depend on. The region has changed profoundly with land and water use, climate change, and grazing by non-native animals like goats, rabbits, and other livestock. Historically the tree, shrub, and grass species of this ecosystem were extremely diverse and supported a diverse array of woodland and wetland species.

[Pictured: Culgoa National Park, New South Wales, Australia.]

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NPS

Giant kelp forests, Alaska

- Location: United States of America
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The giant kelp forests of Alaska exist because of brown algae species of the Order Laminariales. These kelps can grow up to 15 meters tall. They look like enormous underwater wide-leaved plants, that create an underwater forest filled with a wide variety of creatures that depend on them. Sea urchins, starfish, sea otters, sea lions, Pacific cod, and fur seals, are among the many creatures that depend on this unique ecosystem.

The kelp forests are endangered because of a disruption in the food web. Sea urchins normally eat the algae but urchins now have far less predation pressure from sea otters. Urchins now create kelp “barrens.” Sea otter populations have dropped as a result of killer whale predation. Killer whales formerly hunted for great whales, but have switched to sea otter as prey since whale populations fell precipitously in response to human hunting. The ecosystem also requires very cold seawater, and as sea temperatures change with climate change, this also impacts kelp forests.

[Pictured: Glacier Bay, Alaska.]

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Tylototriton // Wikimedia Commons

Tapia forest

- Location: Madagascar
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Tapia forest occurs only on the island of Madagascar and contains a unique suite of tree, plant, and animal species. Some of the tree species are resistant to fire, as this is a fairly dry, high elevation ecosystem that is prone to wildfire, and some plant species are found nowhere else but here.

Tapia trees themselves are important to the local Madagascar people as their fruits are high in vitamin C and they are hosts to silkworms, which local people use to make silk. However, people also use the trees to make charcoal, for firewood, and to build structures leading to the forest changing into grasslands. Other pressures are grazing domestic livestock and shifts to the fire regime with human and climate impacts.

[Pictured: Central Highlands, Madagascar.]

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GRID Arendal // Flickr

Tidal flats of the Yellow Sea

- Location: China, North Korea and South Korea
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

The Yellow Sea in 2014 had already had a 28% reduction in tidal flats over 30 years, according to reporting from NASA. Tidal flats are essential for preventing flooding on land and mitigating storm surges.

[Pictured: Tidal Flats, Yellow Sea, South Korea.]

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Eric Jones // www.geograph.ie

European reedbeds

- Location: Various countries
- IUCN risk category: vulnerable
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Each reedbed is unique, with plant formations in Europe specific to the biodiversity there and dictated by dominant plant species Phragmites australis. European reedbeds provide essential breeding habitat for several threatened species of birds as well as migratory habitat for the vulnerable aquatic warblers. They further provide purification to water, retain shoreline and water, and offer flood control. Their decline has been well documented in countries throughout Europe.

[Pictured: Reedbeds at the Loakers, Louth, Ireland.]

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Andrew Tabor // www.antarctica.gov.au

Antarctic shallow invertebrate-dominated ecosystems

- Location: Various countries
- IUCN risk category: near threatened
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Invertebrate communities under Antarctic sea ice will disappear as the climate warms and melts the sea ice, according to science journal Austral Ecology. Researchers predict changes to the whole ecosystem supported by that invertebrate community.

[Pictured: Antarctic ecosystem.]

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Andrés Gerlotti // Wikimedia Commons

Tepui shrublands

- Location: Venezuela
- IUCN risk category: least concern
- Assessment level: global
- Full assessment

Tepui shrublands contain a suite of distinctive shrubby vegetation that once gone, is very hard to recover, according to the scientific foundation for the Red List of Ecosystems. Tourist activities and garbage dumping have impacted this unique ecosystem.

[Pictured: Parque Nacional Canaima, Venezuela.]

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NOAA's National Ocean Service // Flickr

Meso-American Reef

- Location: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The Meso-American Reef has the second-longest barrier reef in the world, stretching more than 1,000 kilometers from Mexico all the way to northern Honduras. According to the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the barrier reef’s many threats include overfishing, pollution, acidification, increasing sea surface temperatures, disease outbreaks, and invasive species.

[Pictured: Meso-American Reef off Roatan, Honduras.]

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Abu Shawka // Wikimedia Commons

Cape flats sand fynbos

- Location: South Africa
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

Cape Flats sand fynbos is special shrubland in South Africa that is species-rich, containing an unusually high number of species—some of which are found nowhere else and have already gone extinct as a result of human development, according to PLoS ONE. Habitat loss is caused by people turning native vegetation areas into the more urban land uses associated with nearby Cape Town.

[Pictured: Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area, Cape Town, South Africa.]

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Pete // Flickr

Cumberland plain woodland

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The unique Cumberland plain woodland of Australia is critically endangered as a result of significant habitat loss and clearing for human development, according to Austral Ecology. The clearing rate has recently tapered off, but is expected to double again in the next 10 years with increasing urbanization.

[Pictured: Cumberland plain woodland, Australia.]

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Auscape/Universal Images Group // Getty Images

Eastern Stirling Range montane heath and thicket community

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The Stirling Range is the only area in this region with mountain environments that support a distinct ecosystem known as the Eastern Stirling Range montane heath and thicket community. This ecosystem is already rare, and it contains many species found nowhere else. It will need to be managed in order to preserve and protect it. According to Austral Ecology, these areas are impacted by a plant pathogen and are at risk of future effects of climate change.

[Pictured: Stirling Range National Park, Western Australia.]

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Humphreymurray // Wikimedia Commons

Ironstone shrubland

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The Ironstone shrublands in the southwest of Western Australia are a kind of case study in tracking a global hotspot for ecosystem diversity. The area surrounding the Ironstone shrublands is known to contain an array of diverse ecosystems that are all unique unto themselves. According to researchers in Austral Ecology, the Ironstone shrublands are among the rarest and contain species found nowhere else. The shrublands are also at risk because of weed invasion.

[Pictured: Ironstone Mountain, Tasmania.]

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Fan252 // Wikimedia Commons

Karst rising-spring wetland community of Southeast Australia

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

This remarkable ecosystem of Southeast Australia is a series of wetland and plant communities that are found in special limestone springs and caverns, according to the Science Resource Center of South Australia. The spring pools and peat fens support a diverse community of reedbeds, sedge lands, and shrublands. Land clearing and wetland draining have impacted these communities, and immediate threats include water extraction for agriculture, climate change, water pollution, declines in water quality, and seawater intrusion.

[Pictured: Jenolan Caves, New South Wales, Australia.]

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Nicholas Jones // Flickr

Mountain ash forest

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The Mountain Ash forest ecosystem of southeastern Australia are found in the Central Highlands of Victoria, and are at risk of ongoing impacts of wildfire, according to Austral Ecology. Improving the protection and restoration of remaining forest are important, and this must include a significant drop in logging practices to be effective.

[Pictured: Mountain Ash of the Black Spur Drive, Victoria, Australia.]

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Chrysallion // Wikimedia Commons

Raised bogs of Germany

- Location: Germany
- IUCN risk category: critically endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The raised bogs of Germany are an extraordinarily unusual ecosystem that is dominated by a particular type of vegetation known as the peat mossed (Sphagnum species) and plants evolved to feed on insects, known as the sundews. Low in nutrients, the raised bogs have a characteristic, unique set of plants and animals evolved to live only in this environment. However, according to PLoS ONE, the ecosystem is critically endangered because humans discovered and extracted peat as an energy source, including by way of large industrial extractions that continue and are likely to increase. Peat removal releases immense amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment and makes it nearly impossible for the ecosystem to recover.

[Pictured: Raised bog at the Rothsteinsmoor, Hamburg, Germany.]

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Darcy Perkins // Shutterstock

Alpine snow patch herbfields

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The Alpine snow patch herb fields of Australia are rare, high-elevation ecosystems that support a unique set of plants that evolved with regular snowfall. These regions, in what are known as Australia’s “alps” are uncommon simply because there are not many to begin with. But as the climate changes, the amount of snowfall is likely to decline, and according to Austral Ecology, the ecosystem is likely to become even rarer by reductions in snowfall. These areas need protection, including from non-native grazing animals, especially as other species that don’t need snow compete to move into this habitat.

[Pictured: Mount Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, Australia.]

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lunamaria // Shutterstock

Caribbean coral reefs

- Location: Various countries
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

Caribbean coral reefs are among the great ecosystems of the world and contain a legacy of remarkable species diversity: up to 500–700 species of fish and 65–75 species of coral. Built by year after year of calcium carbonate deposits made by living coral, the Caribbean reefs have been isolated from other regions for so long that they have evolved many of their own distinct species of coral, fish, and other organisms.

According to PLoS ONE, the main predator, the Caribbean monk seal is already extinct as a result of human hunting, and the sea turtles in the region have declined substantially. The main threats to the reefs include disease, pollution, bleaching, ocean acidification, and overfishing. Climate change may affect weather patterns, including storm frequencies. All of these threats interact to impact reef communities in many ways that have compounding impacts.

[Pictured: Coral Reef, Mayan Riviera, Mexico.]

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denisbin // Flickr

Coastal lowland rainforests of Queensland tropics

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The coastal lowland rainforests of Queensland, Australia, exist in a narrow area between the marine coast and the upland forests. Like all coastal rainforests, the proximity of the rainforest to humans, and their potential as agricultural land, make them susceptible to ecosystem losses. These particular rainforests were not well protected in the 1980s because they were already in decline, and now that some areas are better protected, they are increasingly at risk of climate change, land-use impacts, agriculture, and introduced species.

[Pictured: Daintree rainforest, Australia.]

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Elizabeth Caron // Shutterstock

Coastal sandstone upland swamps

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

The coastal sandstone upland swamps of Australia are a kind of bog, with a particular and unique set of plants and shrubs evolved to live in extremely wet conditions. Like peat bogs, the plants need little nutrition and tolerate waterlogged soils. These areas are shrubby and mostly without trees, which means they are distinctive in Australia.

Many of the plant and shrub species are found only in these kinds of communities. The main threats to this ecosystem, according to PLoS ONE, are removing coal and gas from the ground beneath the bogs, severe fires that can cause permanent shifts to the community structure, and the impacts of climate change on water inputs and wildfire frequency.

[Pictured: Dharawal Nature Reserve, New South Wales, Australia.]

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Mnolf // Wikimedia Commons

German tamarisk-pioneer vegetation

- Location: Various countries
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

German tamarisk-pioneer vegetation is found only in areas of gravel and sandy ground with a consistent flooding period. The vegetation is dominated by low-to-the-ground plants and shrubs, especially the German tamarisk; this shrub produces small, lightweight hairy seeds that float and colonize new areas. They are a “pioneer” species. However, the ecosystem has been very reduced by great changes in water use; including altering river channels, eliminating floodplains, and building hydro-electric dams.

[Pictured: Myricaria germanica in Pfunds, Austria.]

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Arbitrarily0 // Wikimedia Commons

Great Lakes alvar

- Location: The U.S., Canada
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

In an area found all the way around the North American Great Lakes, there is a particular ecosystem known as alvar that supports a distinct range of grasslands, shrubs, and some evergreens but very few additional trees. Alvar species grow in the shallow soils typical of the area, many of which have a limestone substrate. This determines what vegetation will grow in the soil. According to PloS ONE, threats to the alvar include quarrying for the limestone, human development, off-road vehicle impacts on the fragile vegetation, logging nearby trees (which can disrupt the alvar ecosystem), and plant collections.

[Pictured: Alvar near Singing Sands Beach, Ontario, Canada.]

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Zhanel.bissekenova // Wikimedia Commons

Intertidal mudflats of the French Atlantic coast

- Location: France
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local

These coastal wetlands are essential to aquaculture and provide important filtration. Important areas like this were once considered a nuisance and were often dredged or developed. Today, mudflats are recognized as integral habitat for thousands of species, from migratory shorebirds to mollusks.

[Pictured: Bay of Somme, France.]

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Ethel_Aardvark // Wikimedia Commons

Vine thicket in Southeast Australia

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

Australia’s Littoral Rainforest is comprised of vine thickets and rainforest and was classified by the Australian Government as Critically Endangered in 2008 under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The rainforest is home to more than 70 vulnerable species and serves as a buffer from erosion and wind.

[Pictured: Carissa ovata thicket, softwood scrub, coastal Central Queensland.]

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Hypervision Creative // Shutterstock

Murray-Darling Basin

- Location: Australia
- IUCN risk category: endangered
- Assessment level: local
- Full assessment

Southeastern Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin gets its name from the Murray and Darling rivers that run through it. The basin drains about 14% of Australia’s landmass. The water and ecosystems of the area are threatened by erosion, harmful blue-green algae blooms, invasive species, and salinity—all of which are exacerbated by climate change.

[Pictured: Murray-Darling Basin, Australia.]

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