In the past few decades, warming temperatures have helped many species expand northward into Maine.
Bird species that used to be rare visitors are now year-round residents, like red-bellied woodpeckers and Carolina wrens. Gulf of Maine fishermen report increased catches of traditionally Mid-Atlantic species like red hake, turbot, Black Sea bass, blue crab, butterfish, and summer flounder. Four separate nights this summer I spotted another relative newcomer, Virginia opossum, scurrying along the roadside.
As the warming climate shifts habitats northward, the species that live in those habitats follow. Animals that we think of as “native Maine” species – moose, American lobster, black-capped chickadee, Atlantic puffin – will, if current trends continue, be pushed northward out of Maine for lack of suitable habitat.
But other species we typically associate with warmer climes may take their places. Let’s meet some of them:
• Nine-banded armadillo. Armadillos didn’t live in the United States at all until the early 1900s when they somehow managed to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico at about the same time they were introduced by humans into Florida. It was a wild century for them after that, as a lack of predators helped the species expand rapidly throughout the Southeast and Midwest. However, scientists studying the species’ habitat requirements predict that conditions are already favorable for range expansion as far north as Cape Cod. Just a few degrees warmer and that range could shift into Maine.
• Lined seahorse. The water in the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other water body on Earth, and southern species are loving it. The lined seahorse may have always been here in small numbers, but populations appear to be growing. A Boothbay lobsterman made news in 2018 when he found seahorses in his traps twice in two weeks.
• Brown pelican. The state bird of Louisiana would certainly look out of place diving among lobster traps, but they’re on their way. The massive birds are already common as far north as the New Jersey coast, and the National Audubon Society predicts that they could expand into Cape Cod if current warming trends continue. It’s only a few miles from there until pelicans are fighting gulls for fish scraps on the Portland waterfront.
• Bottlenose dolphin. The beloved bottlenose Dolphin, a.k.a. “Flipper,” has a worldwide distribution, found off the coasts of every continent except Antarctica – and also not in the Gulf of Maine. They’re already resident along inshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic and are not-infrequent visitors to Long Island Sound, so the Gulf of Maine may be in their future.
• American alligator. Look, it’ll be a long time before alligators are in Maine, but they are moving north. These prehistoric reptiles have moved into southern Virginia and western Tennessee in just the past few years, and if the habitat continues to improve for them, there’s no reason they can’t someday be found floating among the grasses at Scarborough Marsh – er, Scarborough Bayou?
The point of all of this is that climate change will cause future generations to inhabit a Maine that is different than the one we’re used to. Our identities are formed around cold winters and lobster bakes, but unless we change our ways the Maine that we know will be just a memory.
We old-timers will tell our wild tales of yesteryear to groups of tourists sitting around cracking Blue Crabs and eating gator burgers at a shack on the coast while flocks of pelicans pick at the scraps.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.