The Roar of Climate Change: sea level rise and…tigers?

Working at the Paleontology museum, I am often inundated with children; screaming, excited, growling (at the T-Rex) children who are thrilled at the very thought of the giant chickens we call dinosaurs. Chasing after them are exhausted smart-phone wielding parents who intermittently demand that their child either touch nothing or pose for a picture.

This game of “don’t touch/pose” reminds me of my own childhood, racing through museums wanting to destroy everything in my path. Of course things were different back then; I was a child of the 80’s. We weren’t afraid of vaccines, self-actualization and consuming bath salts back then – no we had real fears: satanic cults, repressed memories and crack babies.

We were all material girls living in a material world (even the boys) and we spoke with authority when we had something to say about it. Yes, the language of the 80’s was not all Gordon Gecko as some people like to pretend, but rather the language of the valley girl. The 80’s were the decade when the great and terrifying valley girl roamed the earth.

How did the valley girl talk? Well, she talked like, sort of, like, like, like this, you know? If she thought you were tubular, she’d tell you so, but mostly she’d be, like, killer hard on you, or something. And also mostly, she thought you were, like, a total dumbass, using the term “d’uh”, or in under more extreme circumstances, “doy-hickey” if you really said something completely oblivious.

Though I’ve certainly grown out of the crimped hair, swatch-wearing, aerobicizing 80’s girl, I still carry a little of that in my heart. In moments of deep-contemplation of really unusual scientific findings, I have been known to utter “whooooa, tubular” and in response to a talk on geothermal vents, I once uttered under my breath “that is totally radical”. But honestly more often than not when reading about climate change, I revert back the most, because I am almost always saying “d’uh”.

When do I say “d’uh”? Well, when people talk about really obvious effects of climate change on biological systems.

What is an obvious effect? Well, what about melting ice sheets impacting polar bears? D’uh. How about research into changing migration patterns and phenological events in response to a warming temperatures? Double d’uh. And when people talk about rising sea levels impacting shoreline animals or island nations (1)….well, gag me with a spoon, of course there will be an impact. We’ve just graduated from “d’uh” to “doy hickey”.

But before we dismiss all sea-level rise impacts on shoreline animals as obvious research, I think we need to expand our horizons a little bit to look at who is relying on the shoreline for their happy home.

Ok, so who is living at the shoreline…well people, sure; crabs, ok; grasses, yeah; mussels, oysters, clams, sea stars, snails, barnacles, limpets, anemones, tunicates: yeah, yeah, yeah….shrimp, turtles, birds, tigers…..wait a minute, tigers?

Yeah, tigers. Wicked.

You see, in eastern India/western Bangladesh, there are these mangrove preserves where tigers run free. In fact, this is the only tiger popular known to be adapted to mangrove forests. That’s not an easy feat, mangroves are forests that are inundated with ocean water….tigers are cats….this was not a match made in heaven. But the tigers adapted, and they seem to be living quite nicely there. For now. But just under one foot sea level rise in the next 60 or so years could completely displace them, at least on the Bangladeshi side, leaving 20 breeders there (2).

You may not be a population biologist, but I bet you could guess that 20 is a pretty small number. Most women I know have had at least that many first dates. Could you imagine if those 20 were your only option? Yikes.

So sea level rise might mean bad news for not only the expected animals (grasses, mussels, plovers, anemones and so on) but also the unexpected ones (lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – at least the tigers and bears, anyway).

In the meantime I’ll be rooting for the noble mangrove-living tiger. It would be way sad if they went the way of the valley girl. Some might even say, that it would be “totally bogus”. Dude.

Further Reading:
(1) Vulnerability of terrestrial island vertebrates to projected sea-level rise
(2) Sea level rise and tigers: predicted impacts to Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangroves

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