Lost Coast

An endangered rabbit in Florida has lost more than half its habitat over the last five decades, and sea-level rise is mainly to blame, a new study says.

Development is squeezing out animals that live along the coasts. And in the 1990s, the rate of sea-level rise sped up to 3.3 millimeters per year. Caught between roads, buildings, and walls on one side and encroaching oceans on the other, coastal species may be left with few options.

One vulnerable animal is the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, which lives on islands off Florida’s coast. The study authors compared aerial photographs of the area taken in 1959 and 2006 and determined which patches were likely to be marsh rabbit habitat. (The researchers confirmed the 2006 habitat locations by searching for the species’ fecal pellets in those regions.) The team also estimated how much of the habitat change was due to sea-level rise or development.

The Lower Keys marsh rabbit lost 64 percent of its habitat over those 47 years, the authors report in Global Change Biology. Sea-level rise accounted for about 48 percent of the losses and development for 8 percent. On islands where at least 8 percent of the land was developed during that time, almost no new habitat for the rabbits was created. To protect the species, managers could help the rabbits move inland and take steps to improve the overall ecosystem, such as controlling invasive species, the authors say. Roberta Kwok | 20 September 2012

Source: Schmidt, J.A. et al. 2012. Impacts of a half century of sea-level rise and development on an endangered mammal. Global Change Biology doi: 10.1111/gcb.12024.

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