How wildlife can help curb global warming

Elephant looking at camera, in what looks like late afternoon.
How do animals help store heat-trapping carbon dioxide? They do it in different ways. For example, according to the World Wildlife Fund: “As forest elephants roam, they stomp out small invasive plant species, which in turn allows large trees to grow and store carbon. Elephants also support biodiversity, by helping with seed dispersal and contribute to nutrients in the soil with their dung. It’s estimated that – without elephant disturbance – Africa’s rain forest would lose 7 percent of its ability to store carbon.” Image via Harvey Sapir/ Pexels.

Protecting wildlife can curb climate change

Earth is warming at an alarmingly fast rate, as human activities – such as the burning of fossil fuels – continue to pour excess heat-trapping carbon dioxide, and other gasses, into our atmosphere. But wild animals help store carbon. That is, they remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere every year, preventing it from warming Earth and thereby mitigating global warming. And, on March 27, 2023, Yale University scientists announced a new study, showing just how effective the protection and restoration of wild animals to their natural environments can be, in helping to curb global warming via carbon storage

The study showed that protecting or restoring wild animal could collectively lead to the additional capture of 6.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s 95% of the amount needed each year to meet the target of the Paris Agreement, an international treaty originally adopted by 196 nations in 2015.

The Paris Agreement aims to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to keep global warming below a 1.5° Celsius threshold.

Oswald J. Schmitz of Yale led the new study, which included 14 other authors from eight countries. The team looked at nine wildlife species, including marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, African forest elephants and American bison.

The peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change published this study on March 27, 2023.

Protecting wildlife: A wolf rests and looks at the camera.
Protecting wildlife, such as this wolf, can help increase carbon storage. That is, the natural activities of wild creatures help trap carbon and store it. Larger populations of animals would keep more carbon from entering Earth’s atmosphere. In that way, wild animals would help curb global warming. Image via Pixabay/ Pexels.

How do wild creatures limit carbon?

The team studied animals in diverse environments, from dry land environments to freshwater to marine ecosystems. Animals in all of these ecosystems remove carbon from Earth’s atmosphere via diverse activities, including foraging, nutrient or organic carbon deposition (by which gasses and particles from the atmosphere are transported to land and ocean surfaces), as well as by soil disturbance and seed dispersal.

The team’s research showed that either the presence or absence of wild animals in specific ecosystems fundamentally changed the carbon uptake and storage there. Schmitz commented:

Wildlife species, throughout their interaction with the environment, are the missing link between biodiversity and climate.

This interaction means rewilding can be among the best nature-based climate solutions available to humankind.

Two bison near water and green grass and trees.
Bison visit a watering hole. Image via Brett Sayles/ Pexels.

Declining animal populations

The team found that, as animals become extinct in an ecosystem, their absence could transform habitats from carbon sinks to carbon sources. And, in the last 50 years, the world’s wildlife population has declined by 70%. So, they said, solutions to the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis are interwoven.

There’s even a name for restoring animal populations to enhance carbon storage; it’s called animating the carbon cycle.

The nine wildlife species studied by these scientists are just a starting place, these scientists said. They recognized other species with a high potential to store carbon. Those include the African buffalo, white rhino, puma, dingo, Old and New World primates, hornbills, fruit bats, harbor and gray seals, and loggerhead and green turtles. The study claimed:

Natural climate solutions are becoming fundamental to achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement …

Expanding climate solutions to include animals can help shorten the time horizon.

More land animals that fight climate change

A tiger lying down with a younger cub reaching over its back.
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “Many land animals promote healthy habitats that capture and store carbon to prevent further climate warming … [For example, tigers] play a key role in maintaining the health of the forest ecosystems that effectively sequester the carbon emissions that cause climate change. In India, forests inhabited by tigers were found to contain 3 times the carbon density of forests and other landscapes where the tiger populations were eradicated.” Image via Waldemar/ Pexels.
A tapir with white-tipped ears and a curving snout.
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “In the Amazon, decades of clearing trees for agriculture and ranch land, as well as wood and paper products, have left forests degraded, decimated, and in need of restoration. One surprising tool for forest rehabilitation? Tapir poop. Tapirs are large terrestrial animals that can grow to 8 feet (2.5 m) in length and frequent areas of the Amazon most in need of reseeding. Many animals participate in seed dispersal, but tapirs prefer to roam degraded forests rather than pristine lands. With a diet of herbs, shrubs, and leaves rich in nutrients, tapirs leave trails of seeds in their waste as they explore”. They are very convenient when lands have burned or trees and plants have been cut down and they need to be reseeded. Image via Tucky Piyapong/ Pexels.

Marine animals that fight climate change

A whale breaches high above the water's surface with mountains in the background.
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “Whales, like all living things, are carbon sinks, and quite large ones. Every great whale sequesters an average of 33 tons of carbon over the span of their lifetime. When a whale dies a natural death, its carbon turns into sediment that nourishes the sea floor.” Image via Pixabay/ Pexels.
Sea otter with light-colored head lies on its back in the water with front paws together.
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “As they swim along the Pacific coast, otters play a vital role in a food chain that ultimately helps capture carbon from the air. Sea otters feed on sea urchins, which feed on kelp. As otters keep sea urchin populations in check, kelp can thrive and sequester more carbon. The result? Sequestration of as much as 8.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than double the emissions of an average coal-fired power plant over the span of an entire year. Kelp was also found to be 12 times more effective at absorbing carbon when guarded by sea otters.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A cluster of oysters stuck to a rock.
According to the World Wildlife Fund: “As global temperatures rise, so do sea levels, threatening coastal communities around the world. Surprisingly, even small organisms like oysters can come to our defense. Oysters are keystone species with ripple effects on the health of their ecosystems and its inhabitants. Just 1 adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a single day, making waterways cleaner.” Image via Magda Ehlers/ Pexels.

A lion cub, via the EarthSky community

Baby lion cub resting among tree branches.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Melanie Higgins was in Tanzania, Africa, on March 9, 2023, when she captured this image of a lion cub. She wrote: “Next to last game drive on African safari, this beautiful cub cooperated with the camera.” Scientists found that wild creatures such as this baby lion help with store carbon from Earth’s atmosphere – and thereby help decrease or delay global warming – via a diverse array of activities, including foraging, nutrient or organic carbon deposition (transport of gasses and particles from the atmosphere to the land and ocean surfaces), disturbance, and seed dispersal. Thank you, Melanie!

Bottom line: A new study shows that protecting wildlife can play a huge role in carbon storage and limiting climate change.

Last chance to get a moon phase calendar! Only a few left.

Source: Trophic rewilding can expand natural climate solutions

Via Yale University

Read more: Mexican wolf numbers soar past 200

Watch a video: How wolves change rivers

March 29, 2023

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

Kelly Kizer Whitt

View All