Discover 5 Endangered Species You Can Help Save Today!

Written by Jesse Elop
Published: January 24, 2023
© ZacWolf / Creative Commons / Original
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Key Points

If you dig through the news, you may come across stories of different plants and animals enduring forest fires, sea temperature rise, extreme weather events, and urbanization. A scourge of wildfires in Australia in 2019 to 2020, for example, killed over 3 billion animals and burned 60 million acres. Digging further, you may even find some headlines describing recently extinct species. News of animal species suffering is extremely disheartening; however, these stories are not always hopeless. This article will investigate five species, one from each vertebrate class, currently vulnerable or endangered that you can help save!

What is an Endangered Species?

animals
Research on species population numbers allows scientists to focus conservation efforts where they are needed most.

©BeataGFX/Shutterstock.com

Vocabulary

To learn about how to help at-risk species, we first need to learn the language. An endangered species is one that has a concerningly low wild population that is at risk for becoming extinct. Animals can be classified by the IUCN as endangered or critically endangered to describe the threat levels species in these circumstances are experiencing. Extinction is when an animal ceases to exist entirely, and functional extinction is when the species is alive, but there are too few individuals remaining to repopulate, like the northern white rhino.

An extant species is one that is not extinct. Extirpation, with regards to animal conservation, is the local extinction of a species in a specific place while the species continues to exist in the wild elsewhere. If a species exists only in one place in the wild, it is endemic to that location. The classification “extinct in the wild” describes animals that no longer have wild populations but that may be alive in zoos or confined breeding programs.

Classification

The most extensive database of comprehensive conservation status evaluations is that of the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN compiles data to sort species based on their population numbers and the threats that they face. The categories in order of increasing threat of extinction are least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct. Other species may also be “data deficient” or “not evaluated”.  Animals that are endangered, critically endangered, or extinct in the wild are destined for extinction unless immediate human intervention is taken. Unfortunately, humans are the major drivers of extinction events today and our actions continue to put animals in harm’s way. Here, we will learn about some small ways we can make a difference to reverse these trajectories.

What are the 5 Major Vertebrate Classes?

animals
The five major vertebrate classes include animals that all have a backbone.

©VectorMine/Shutterstock.com

All living things are classified in a hierarchal system that outlines the evolutionary relatedness of different species. This system of classification is called Linnaean taxonomy and it comes from Linnaeus’ 1735 publication Systema Naturae. Interestingly, Linnaeus himself went on an expedition to classify all plants and animals and although he soon learned of the tremendous diversity on Earth, he classified over 12,000 species! Although, several have been renamed as more information on genetic relatedness between species becomes available.

 The hierarchical levels in descending order are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Each of these levels contain further groupings such as clades, sub-orders, sub-families, sub-genera, and sub-species. The subphylum Vertebrata, within the phylum Chordata, includes all animals with a backbone. These vertebrates are mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish.

Mammals

Mammals are animals of the class Mammalia. They are distinct in the animal kingdom for having 4 shared anatomical traits: mammary glands, hair or fur, a neocortex, and three middle-ear bones. Mammary glands in females produce milk for infants to feed on. Fur and hair serve various purposes in different mammal species from wolves to beluga whales. The neocortex is a region in the brain involved in higher level functions such as sensory perception, cognition, spatial reasoning, motor commands, and language, and the middle ear bones, or ossicles, have important acoustic function. Mammals are also endothermic which means they regulate their body temperatures with physiological processes like sweating, panting, and their metabolism.

Amphibians

Amphibians are animals in the class Amphibia that have four limbs and are ectothermic. Ectotherms, unlike endotherms, regulate their body temperatures using environmental mechanisms such as laying in the sun. In the class Amphibia, there are frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and limbless serpentine amphibians called caecilians. Amphibians are different from reptiles because they do not have scales and their skin is often moist with mucus. They inhabit a large variety of habitats including ones on land, in trees, and in water.

Reptiles and Birds

Retiles are animals of the class Reptilia. They include turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodilians, and tuatara. Extinct reptiles also include dinosaurs! Classic taxonomy puts birds in a separate class, Aves, but there is recent debate regarding if birds should belong to the class Reptilia. This is because genetic analysis suggests birds share a close evolutionary relationship with reptiles. In fact, crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to other living reptiles! The argument is also supported by recent data regarding the origin of flight. Some extinct reptiles had feathers and could fly, like birds. The discovery of transitional species and extinct birds that closely resemble reptiles further support merging the classes. An important distinction between birds and reptiles, however, is that reptiles are ectothermic like amphibians, and birds are endothermic like mammals.

Fish

95% of extant fish species belong to the class Actinopterygii, the ray-finned fish. Fish have gills, they do not have limbs with fingers, and they live solely in aquatic environments. Animals that qualify as “fish” include hagfish, lampreys, all cartilaginous and bony fish, and all extinct relatives. Fish first evolved around 535 million years ago! There are 35,300 species of fish making it the most diverse of all vertebrate classes. Most fish are solely ectothermic, but some species have “regional endothermy” that supports thermoregulation in certain important organs and tissues.

Polar Bear (Mammal)

A Polar Bear, The white bear is center frame. looking toward the camera. The bear's head is frame left, it is standing on ice/snow, swimming-pool-blue water is visible in the background.
A polar bear spends most of its time on ice sheets that are rapidly melting.

©iStock.com/Alexey_Seafarer

What are they?

The first vulnerable or endangered species we will investigate is the polar bear, Ursus maritimus. They are the largest bear and the largest extant carnivore in the world! The polar bear is one of the largest land mammals in North America and is one of only a couple animal species in the world that will naturally prey upon humans. Polar bears live in the Arctic where food is scarce, so they feed opportunistically on anything that is available. Typically, though, they feed on seals. Polar bears are hypercarnivorous which means that more than 70% of their diet is meat. In contrast, their close relative the brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a hypocarnivore with a diet of less than 30% meat. With a diet primarily of seals, polar bears must spend much of their time on sea ice to hunt.

Why are they endangered?

The polar bear was first classified as vulnerable in May of 2008. The primary threat they face is habitat loss due to climate change, specifically, the melting of polar ice caps. Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13% per decade and if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the Arctic could have no ice remaining by the summer of 2040. Polar ice melts faster as sea temperature and ambient atmospheric temperature increase, and average monthly sea ice volume has been decreasing dramatically since 1980 as a result.

The decreasing volume and surface area of sea ice is a major threat to polar bears because of their reliance on it for hunting. Polar bears rely on sea ice for hunting seals and are in urgent danger of starvation as the ice becomes scarcer. Not only is there less area to hunt, but polar bears also have to swim greater distances between hunting locations. The longest swim by a polar bear without rest was an amazing 426 miles over 9 days! The female was recorded via satellite swimming with her cub near Greenland. Unfortunately, the cub died during the long swim.

How can we help save them?

There are many ways we can all help save polar bears. As the impacts of climate change intensify, eco-conscious practices are more important now than ever. Currently, fossil fuels are the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 75% globally. Fossil fuels include coal, gasoline, and oil. If your circumstances allow, try to limit the amount of vehicle emissions your household produces. You can do this by driving less and walking, biking, or taking public transportation instead. Livestock is also a major contributor to climate change, accounting for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing your meat intake, especially red meats like beef and pork, is both healthy and a good way to help our planet and our polar bears.

Green Sea Turtle (Reptile)

Sea Turtle, Turtle, Hawaii Islands, Sea, Green Turtle
Green sea turtles are endangered due to pollution and potential injury and/or death due to garbage in the ocean.

©iStock.com/ShaneMyersPhoto

What are they?

Representing the class Reptilia, the next endangered species we will consider is the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas. The green sea turtle was one of the 12,000 species described by Carl Linnaeus, first being called Testudo mydas, and was documented in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758. Today, the green sea turtle inhabits tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide. There are Atlantic and Pacific subpopulations that are genetically distinct from each other and that have different native home ranges. In the United States, nesting sites are most prolific in Florida with an approximate record of 37,000 green sea turtle nests in 2015. Green sea turtles rely on beaches for nesting sites and rely on a diet that includes jellyfish, both necessities that are affected by humans.

Why are they endangered?

Green sea turtles were officially classified as endangered in 1982 and updated evaluations maintain this classification. The turtles are indirectly affected by pollution and can be injured or killed by garbage in the ocean, especially plastic bags and straws. Turtles do not have very good vision and often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. When they ingest plastic, turtles can get serious internal injuries that can be lethal.

Other ways humans threaten the longevity of green sea turtles are habitat destruction and climate change affecting nesting sites. Human inhabitation and construction on beaches destroy important areas that female turtles require to lay their eggs. Without proper nesting sites, females are less likely to reproduce successfully, and local population numbers will suffer. Also, high sea temperatures cause nesting sites in the sand to be warmer. For sea turtles, the temperature of nesting sites determines the sex of the offspring. If nesting sites are all warm, only females will hatch and reproduction in the next generation might suffer because of too few males.

How can we help save them?

There are multiple ways you can help the green sea turtle. First of all, try to reduce your usage of plastic bags and straws. In several countries, such as Tanzania which has a large sea turtle population off the coast in the Indian Ocean, plastic bags are illegal. Instead, try using recyclable paper bags or reusable fabric bags. Also, many companies are starting to use biodegradable straws or cup lids that don’t require straws. Consider these options or a reusable straw in the future to avoid unnecessary waste. To reduce the impact you have on rising sea temperatures, limit your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by driving and flying less.

Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog (Amphibian)

Recovered Mountain yellow-legged frog
The mountain yellow-legged frog lives in bodies of water that naturally do not have many predatory fish species.

©USFWS Pacific Southwest Region from Sacramento, US / public domain – License

What are they?

One amphibian that needs our help is the mountain yellow-legged frog, Rana muscosa. This frog is endemic to California and lives in mountainous regions including the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. It spends most of its time in aquatic areas such as creeks, streams, and montane lakes, most of which do not naturally host predatory fish populations. Like all true frog species, the mountain yellow-legged frog undergoes a metamorphosis from an egg to a tadpole to a frog.

Why are they endangered?

This frog species was classified as endangered in 2013. There are two primary dangers that mountain yellow-legged frogs face: introduced species and pesticide poisoning. In the 19th century in the Sierra Nevada, trout were introduced to various mountain streams and rivers that the frogs inhabited. The trout were introduced to encourage recreational fishing and attract business to the area. Introducing the fish, however, had unintentional consequences detrimental to the frog populations. The invasive species fed on mountain frog tadpoles, causing population numbers to plummet, and disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.

Another danger these Californian frogs face is pesticide poisoning. Some scientists suggest that this poses a greater threat to the species than trout predation but both factors are very impactful and of great concern. Pesticides that can be harmful and even lethal to the frogs accumulate in agricultural runoff and contaminate the bodies of water that the frogs rely on.

How can we help save them?

There are many ways that you can help this endangered amphibian! First, for the sake of many important plant and animal species, if you farm or garden, consider some eco-friendly alternatives to chemical pesticides. There are plant-base alternatives, home remedies, and natural solutions that will be less harmful to the environment than a plethora of chemicals. If you do not garden or farm, you can support local legislation regarding the regulation of dangerous chemicals used in farming and buy produce from ethical sources.

A second way you can support these frogs and other species affected by similar issues is by supporting invasive species removal efforts. Invasive and introduced species wreak havoc on the ecosystems they enter because they deplete a resource that cannot regenerate fast enough to replenish itself. The native animals that rely on that resource will suffer as a result. Many projects accept funding and volunteer support to remove invasive plant and animal species and restore the natural balance of the affected habitat.

Whale Shark (Fish)

Whale shark
The whale shark is the largest species of fish in the world, yet they are considered “largely depleted.”

©Krzysztof Odziomek/Shutterstock.com

What are they?

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are actually not whales, they’re fish! In fact, whale sharks are the largest species of fish in the world! Whales are mammals, whereas whale sharks are more closely related to sharks and other fish. They inhabit warm waters and tropical seas usually in the open ocean, the pelagic zone. There is an Atlantic subpopulation and an IndoPacific subpopulation, which comprises 75% of the total global whale sharks. They live long lives, usually between 80 and 130 years! As a result, they develop slowly, and males do not reach reproductive maturity until about 25 years old.

Why are they endangered?

Unintentional Human Impacts

Whale sharks are classified as an endangered species and are noted to be “largely depleted”, however, there is no recent, comprehensive population census. Unfortunately, the main variables affecting their shrinking numbers are by-catch, vessel-strikes, and illegal hunting, which are impactful especially considering the shark’s long reproductive cycles. By-catch, or bycatch, is predominantly a consequence of commercial or recreational fishing operations that employ trawling, longline, and seine fishing techniques. “By-catch” describes animals that are caught unintentionally, including pregnant individuals, juveniles, and animals not of the target species. Today, for more than 15 shark species this is a substantial threat to survival and endangers their populations, including whale sharks. Another unintentional human threat to whale sharks is vessel strikes. Vessel strikes are collisions between boats or ships with marine life.

Intentional Human Impacts

An intentional anthropogenic danger that whale sharks are subjected to is illegal hunting. Illegal hunting and trafficking of whale sharks is currently most prolific in China. According to National Geographic, approximately 600 whale sharks and basking sharks are processed every year at a single slaughterhouse in southeastern China. There are also reports of this slaughterhouse butchering great white sharks, as well. These sharks are shipped to be butchered at the factory from local areas, but also from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico. Between 1995 and 2008 a legal fishery in Taiwan slaughtered over 800 whale sharks. Whale shark carcasses can be sold for around $30,000 dollars and are prized for their fins, skins, and oils. Shark fin soup is also considered a delicacy in some areas.

Repopulation Difficulty

The effects of these heinous acts on the whale shark species are compounded by the fact that they have a slow reproductive cycle. Little is known about whale shark mating and pregnancy because they cannot survive in captivity, and they have only been observed mating in the wild twice and caught while pregnant once. Also, although the exact ages of sexual maturity in females and males are disputed, their late development causes repopulation to occur slower than the rate at which their populations are declining. The birth rate is lower than the death rate so the population is very unstable.

How can we help save them?

To support whale sharks there are multiple steps you can take. First, you can be aware of fishing policies and participate in voting for protective legislation if you’re eligible. You can also contribute to conservation projects led by various governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Activism and raising awareness about the illegal slaughter and consumption of whale sharks is also incredibly important. Similar to other aquatic species, whale sharks are affected by rising sea temperatures and doing your part to slow climate change can have a tremendous impact.

California Condor (Bird)

California condor bird on a rock with wings spread against blue sky
The California condor is a type of vulture that feeds mostly on carrion.

©Barbara Ash/Shutterstock.com

What are they?

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a vulturous bird species that lives in California, Arizona, southern Utah, and Baja California, Mexico. There may be few individuals across the west coast further north, but this is unlikely and they are probably extinct in these areas. Each individual has a large home range, flying up to 180 miles a day to scavenge for food. California condors are also the largest birds in North America!

Why are they endangered?

The California condor is currently listed as critically endangered after being classified as endangered since 1967. They were also the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Population numbers are noted to be increasing, however. The primary factors that led to their decline are habitat destruction and lead poisoning. When the California condor first became endangered, it was discovered that they were suffering from lead poisoning after feeding on carcasses killed with lead ammunition. Residual chemicals and fragments left in the animal after hunting with lead-based ammunition can be lethal if condors ingest certain amounts.

How can we help save them?

Los Angeles Zoo Entrance
The Los Angeles Zoo has an active breeding program to repopulate California condors.

©iStock.com/Kirkikis

Conservation efforts to repopulate California condors in the United States have been the most expensive of any other animal conservation project in American history. Since World War II, the U.S has spent 35 million dollars attempting to save the California condor. These projects include captive breeding, reintroduction, tagging, amongst others.

If you want to help the California condor, you can participate in a crowdsourcing project called Condor Watch (CW). This effort began in April of 2014 and relies on citizen scientists to review footage from the National Park Service and identify tagged condors. The project aims to track the distances condors must fly to find food sources. The data also helps to track condors potentially exposed to lead poisoning. Another way to help is by supporting the zoos where captive breeding programs are currently underway. Breeding programs for the California condor are active at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

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The Featured Image

Male Whale Shark at Georgia Aquarium
Male Whale Shark at Georgia Aquarium
© ZacWolf / Creative Commons / Original

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About the Author

Jesse Elop is passionate about wildlife and loves learning about animal biology and conservation. His favorite animals- besides his pup, Rosie- are zebras, mandrills, and bonobos. Jesse's background in biology and anthropology have supplied him with many fun facts that might just pop up in some of his articles!

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

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  7. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_yellow-legged_frog
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  10. Los Angeles Zoo, Available here: https://lazoo.org/save-wildlife/where-we-stand/
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