Mascot Madness: How Climate Change is Hurting School Spirit
Many of the plants and animals that inspired our favorite teams’ names and mascots are facing a losing streak
Doug Inkley, Ph.D.
Whether a fierce wildcat, a chomping gator, or a fighting duck—mascots are the face of every college athletic program. These symbols of school spirit get the home crowds cheering and rally athletes, students, alumni, and fans, not just on campus but across the community and around the country. They foster a sense of team pride—and great competition.
Unfortunately, many of the plants and animals that inspired our favorite teams’ names and mascots are facing a losing streak.
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From the Colorado State University Rams to the University of Maryland Terrapins, climate change is quickly becoming the toughest opponent to the long-term survival of wildlife. Climate change impacts like sea level rise, extreme droughts and storms, warming temperatures, and melting snowpack are altering key habitat elements that are critical to survival, putting wildlife at risk.
History shows giants can fall, like wolves being wiped out from much of their historic range in the eastern United States. But conservation successes show that with our help Cinderella stories are still possible, such as American buffalo rallying from the brink of extinction.
We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines!
A few key plays can help our mascots make a comeback:
Wildcats - Climate Change Lurking
North America is home to awesome wildcats like the Canada lynx, ocelot, and Florida panther. Villanova University, The University of New Hampshire, University of Arizona and others boast the fierce wildcat as their mascot.
The Canada lynx ranges across the border into northern parts of the contiguous United States from Washington to Maine and down into the Rocky Mountains. The Florida panther is an endangered species with an estimated 100 panthers left in the wild. The ocelot ranges across southern Texas and Mexico and prefers to play at night. It could soon be lights out for the nocturnal ocelots and other wildcats as climate change makes a play at their habitat.
Climate change is causing a decrease in lynx abundance and could lead to disappearance from the lower 48 states in the next 50 years. The lynx depends on deep snow cover and as the climate warms, it could be unable to field a full roster. As sea levels continue to rise, the Florida panther may be run out of bounds and displaced from its habitat. Just three feet of sea level rise, expected by the end of the century, would flood 30% of panther habitat. Droughts driven by climate change are already threatening the reproductive health of ocelots and sea level rise is expected to wipe out some of the ocelot’s coastal habitat. It’s not all bad news though. Mountain lions like the Penn State Nittany Lions are still in the game and not expected to be significantly impacted.
Lions and Tigers - Stalked by Climate Change
There are few cats cooler than lions and tigers. The king of beasts and the star player of the animal kingdom, lions proudly roam throughout southern Africa, living in prides that are similar in size (and spirit) to Loyola Marymount University and Columbia University basketball teams, with 10 to 15 players. Tigers, the largest feline in the world, are fearless. It’s no surprise that schools like Auburn, Louisiana State University and Clemson boast such a ferocious mascot.
Even though lions and tigers are at the top of the food chain, some populations are playing defense to a new predator: climate change. A large coastal mangrove forest in Bangladesh sustains several hundred tigers. Already, rising sea levels are taking a bite out of this tiger habitat.
Lions of the Serengeti lost a third of their population in seven years (1994 to 2001) when extreme drought followed by heavy seasonal rains caused widespread disease and death. As climate change worsens, similar extreme droughts and heavy precipitation are expected.
Bison - Shrinking from Climate Change
The bison, also known as the American buffalo, is the mighty mascot for schools like the University of Colorado, North Dakota State, and Bucknell University. Formidable in size, bison can weigh up to two tons, and once ranged widely across the country with dominating power. This iconic species of the American West was nearly wiped out by uncontrolled hunting and almost driven off its home court. Despite that, they have tenaciously hung on.
Bison are grazing animals and depend on healthy grasslands for survival. Grassland plants in warmer regions have less protein than those in cooler and wetter regions. The lower protein availability appears to cause slowed growth during a bison’s early life. As temperatures rise and the quality of food declines, research indicates bison will become smaller. On average, for every 1°F increase in temperature, adult males weigh about 20 pounds less—and that’s about how much temperatures have already warmed globally above the 20th century average. Bison across the country may not be in game shape if their food quality is affected by warming temperatures.
Rams - Driven Off the Court by Climate Change
Sturdy and powerful, bighorn sheep rams are a symbol of strength and perseverance. It is not a surprise that schools like Colorado State University and Virginia Commonwealth University have made rams their mascot. These rock-climbing animals of the high country once nearly disappeared from our western landscapes due to disease from domestic sheep, competition for forage, and other factors.
While some bighorn sheep populations have recovered, climate change is a new and growing threat. Bighorn sheep are projected to be challenged by rapidly melting snowpack, warming temperatures and less rainfall. This could throw off reproductive cycles and reduce the survival of their young. As climate change continues to worsen in the decades ahead, bighorn sheep rams are expected be down a few players.
Bears - at Risk with Climate Change on the Prowl
Nobody wants to take on an angry bear.
Grizzly bears, the mascots for schools like the University of Montana, can weigh up to 1,700 pounds and have long, dangerous claws that give them the ability to dig for food and make their dens. The black bear, which is the mascot for Baylor University and other schools, is a great tree climber, unlike grizzly bears. Unpredictable in behavior, when humans encounter bears we seldom know whether the best strategy is to flee, attack, or play dead.
Although black bears have a diverse diet and range widely across North America, they are not immune to climate change. In the West, intense drought, one of the many consequences of climate change, has already left bears desperately hungry. This is putting both humans and bears at risk, as bears have begun to venture into towns and communities, even stopping by a bar for a little refreshment and a candy store for some sweets. Furthermore, with warmer weather and shorter winters, bears are spending less time hibernating, which increases the risk of dangerous human/bear conflicts. For many Americans, bears are one of the most recognizable species and climate change is bringing them to their front door instead of their TV.
Wolverines - Melting Away from Climate Change
Much like University of Michigan athletes, the wolverine is tenacious, aggressive, and not afraid to box out much larger opponents. A powerfully built predator, this largest member of the weasel family can take down prey far larger and heavier than its own 35 pounds. Despite many “wolverines” in the Ann Arbor area, this denizen of cold and snowy northern areas rarely ventures into Michigan. Wolverines survive in the lower 48 states only in the Northern Rocky Mountains.
The cold-weather wolverine is rapidly vanishing from continental America as climate change continues to warm the planet. The deep snowpack, so essential for denning and raising their young, is harder and harder to find. The wolverine population in the lower 48 states is struggling to hold on and now numbers only 250 to 300. Unless we act soon, climate change could turn this losing battle into a blowout. The rapidly disappearing wolverine may soon be declared a threatened species as the climate warms even more.
Wolves - On the Hunt
The red wolf of North Carolina is struggling to stay in the game. Home of the impressive North Carolina State Wolfpack, North Carolina is the only place in North America where red wolves are found in the wild. These adept hunters are smaller than gray wolves and have a reddish tint to their coats, giving them their name.
Already endangered, red wolves are facing a tough rival with climate change. Their entire habitat is found at only three feet elevation or less, making them extremely susceptible to looming sea level rise. Their location on the North Carolina coastline also makes red wolves a target for hurricanes, which are increasing in severity with the changing climate. In the far north, the Arctic wolf is also impacted by climate change. Extreme weather is reducing muskox and Arctic hare, their primary prey. As food has become harder to find, Arctic wolves have decreased in numbers.
Crops and Trees: The “Growing” Threat of Climate Change
Not all mascots are intimidating animals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the relentless offense of climate change. Ohio State University has adopted Ohio’s state tree—the buckeye. Syracuse University boasts “The Orange” as their home team, and the Wichita State University Shockers are represented by a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat named WuShock. The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers are a fierce competitor, represented by a vitally important crop—corn. Wheat is one of the cornerstone crops of America’s bread basket and oranges are a fruit enjoyed across the country, although not by Syracuse University opponents.
Drought, storms, and heat brought on by climate change are causing the best areas for Ohio Buckeyes to move north—into rival Michigan Wolverine territory. Wheat is already withering due to drought, with global yields down 5.5%. Due to extreme heat, corn yields could be down as much as 80% within the life span of a child born today. Syracuse University’s mascot, Otto the Orange, may run out of juice as rising temperature decreases water availability and orange production drops.
Birds: the Threat of Climate Change Flies In
Ducks are a favorite species for sportsmen and wildlife watchers. A variety of duck species is found across America—such as the mallard and blue-winged teal. With their prominent bills and distinctive calls, there is no mistaking a quacking duck—or a “fighting duck” like Puddles, the University of Oregon mascot. But ducks are crying foul as climate change hits their habitat. Critical waterfowl habitat of coastal marshes and estuaries along the Pacific coast are threatened by sea-level rise. One of the most important waterfowl breeding areas in North America is the Prairie Pothole Region found on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border in the northern Great Plains. This important wildlife region could wither away as droughts dry up vital drinking water.
The Threat to Falcons
Fast flying peregrine falcons are one of the most formidable birds of prey. The mascot of the U.S. Air Force Academy, they truly represent the school motto of “Fly, Fight, Win!” But these birds are facing the turbulence of climate change. It is altering weather patterns and causing falcon chicks to drown in their nests due to extreme rain events. Perhaps these high flyers might be better off joining the Naval Academy.
Reptilian Renegades: Alligators and Terrapins
Alligators and turtles are some of this planet’s most ancient creatures. Gators, the school mascot for the University of Florida, really know how to take a bite out of the competition. These cold-blooded creatures are one of the world’s largest reptiles and can measure up to 12 feet long. The diamondback terrapin, University of Maryland’s mascot, is the only species of turtle in North America that spends its life in the brackish water of salt marshes, estuaries, and tidal creeks. While common conception may be that turtles are slow, University of Maryland athletes are typically fast on their feet.
Reptiles have been roaming the Earth since the time of the dinosaur. But this season, “terps” and “gators” could face a nearly unbeatable opponent: climate change. When gators overheat, more eggs hatch as males, good for men’s basketball, but not women’s teams. In contrast, terrapins produce disproportionately more females in hotter temperatures. This imbalance in sex ratios is a threat to maintaining healthy populations. Terrapins and gators are also facing the threat of rising sea levels invading their coastal habitats.These reptiles have been on the court for millions of years but climate change could stop them before they even get out of the locker room.
Extreme Weather: Dangerous and Growing Stronger
Hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, fires, and floods are plaguing our country as climate change brings on more intense weather events. It is no surprise that schools name their teams and mascots to represent these strong and destructive events. The University of Miami Hurricanes, the Iowa State Cyclones, the Kent State University (lightning) Flashes, and the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames all boast mascots that intimidate the competition with a show of devastating force.
Stronger hurricanes are on the rise with higher house-destroying wind speeds, more precipitation, and bigger storm surges flooding inland resorts. The University of Miami loves its hurricanes on the basketball court, but all Floridians fear devastating hurricanes ravaging their homes, communities, and unique wildlife habitats found only in Florida. Heat waves, droughts, and devastating wildfires are all unleashed as climate change heats up the landscape. California is facing extreme drought, which is drying up water sources for communities and farms. Climate-driven extreme weather is one of the most significant ways that both people and wildlife are impacted by climate change.
The Game Plan
At National Wildlife Federation, one of our top priorities is protecting plants and animals from the growing threat of climate change.
National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology program has been working with colleges and universities for more than 25 years to advance climate action and sustainability on campuses and in communities, and to encourage the next generation to seek innovative ways to create a more just and sustainable future.
Through our work with college and university students, faculty, and staff, NWF’s Campus Ecology program helps campuses reduce their carbon footprint through efforts including energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, recycling, and more. They also work to green their curricula to ensure students are graduating with the basic understanding of how the Earth’s systems work and that the protection of natural resources is key to the health and well-being of both humans and wildlife.
Our work doesn’t stop on campuses. We are busy across the country: