Playboy Bunny Being Drowned Out by Rising Seas

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A rabbit named after Playboy publishing magnate Hugh Hefner is dying out primarily due to sea level rise, a new study concludes.

The Lower Keys marsh rabbit, known to scientists as Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, is medium-sized with dark brown fur and a gray-white belly.

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Scientists were surprised to find out what's been lowering the population counts for this real Playboy bunny.

"We

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.

McCleery

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.

"So

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.

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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

level rise.

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.

Jeff

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

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