The Lower Keys marsh rabbit, known to scientists as Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, is medium-sized with dark brown fur and a gray-white belly.
Scientists were surprised to find out what's been lowering the population counts for this real Playboy bunny.
kind of look at sea level rise as this problem that's just starting,
something that is going to be a real problem for conservation
in the future. But what we're showing here is that it's already a
problem," University of Florida researcher Robert McCleery said in a press release. "We're not saying that development doesn't have
an impact, but sea level rise is undoubtedly the main culprit and
development helps exacerbate it."
The findings are published in Global Change Biology.
and Jason A. Schmidt, a former graduate student of McCleery's when he
worked at Texas A&M University, began looking at the
Lower Keys marsh rabbit because it was a federally endangered species
known only to live in an isolated part of the Florida Keys.
They found that only 8 percent of the rabbit's downturn is directly attributable to human development. This suggests that, at least in this instance, development's greatest threats are indirect, such as
blocking the bunny's habitat from migrating inland in response to
rising sea levels, the researchers said.
for these rabbits, not only is sea level rise bad, but we're showing
that development is working synergistically with that sea level
rise, by preventing the vegetation on these islands from adjusting or 'migrating' inland," McCleery said.
He and his colleague studied aerial photographs from 1959 (when the rabbit was
still plentiful) and 2006 and were able to show a 64 percent
net loss of the marsh rabbit's habitat — 48 percent of it due to sea
At this point, only a few hundred of the rabbits remain in a few of the keys, such
as Boca Chica, Sugarloaf and Big Pine.
During the last century, sea
level rose between 6 to 8 inches, although scientists believe
the rate increased greatly in the last decade and many expect that
trend to continue.
Gore, a statewide wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission, said the study shows that sea
level change that seems almost imperceptible to humans can still have a
big impact on wildlife.
Gore said, "Obviously,
it's already having an effect on the marsh rabbit, but in a state like
Florida with so much coastline and so many endangered
species, it's going to be a major concern for decades to come."
Photo: Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Credit: Jason Schmidt