Impacts of a half century of sea-level rise and development on an endangered mammal


Correspondence: Robert A. McCleery, tel. + 352 846 0566, fax + 352 392 6984, e-mail:


The extraordinary growth of human populations and development in coastal areas over the last half century has eliminated and degraded coastal habitats and threatened the persistence of associated wildlife. Moreover, human-induced sea-level rise (SLR) is projected to further eliminate and alter the same coastal ecosystems, especially low-lying regions. Whereas habitat loss and wildlife population declines from development are well documented, contemporary SLR has not yet been implicated in declines of coastal faunal populations. In addition, the projection of severe synergistic impacts from the combination of development and SLR is well described, yet the scientific literature offers little empirical evidence of the influence of these forces on coastal wildlife. Analysis of aerial photographs from 1959 to 2006 provided evidence of a 64% net loss of the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit's (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri; LKMR) habitat, the majority due to SLR (>48%). Furthermore, there was a strong negative relationship between the proportion of development per island and the amount of new habitat formed. Islands with modest development (less than 8% of land area) saw formation of new areas of marsh vegetation suitable for rabbits, whereas islands with 8% or more of their lands developed between 1959 and 2006 saw little to no addition of LKMR habitat. Only 8% of habitat loss was directly due to conversion to impervious surfaces, indicating that the greatest threats from development were indirect, including blocking of the inland migration of habitat triggered by SLR. Our results were consistent with an ongoing squeeze of coastal ecosystems between rising seas and development as a threat to LKMR habitat, which raises concern for a wide variety of coastal species. Our results provide evidence that SLR has become a contemporary conservation concern, one that is exacerbated by development, and expected to increase in magnitude as ocean waters continue to rise.