Developing Future Habitat Condition Scenarios for Wildlife in the Imperiled Pine Rockland Ecosystem of South Florida

Susan Walls, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center

Project Completion: March 2020. This project is now complete.

Implements Science Plan Theme: Adaptation

Cooperators: Kristen Hart (USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center), William J. Barichivich (Wetland and Aquatic Research Center), Michael Cherkiss (USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center), Jeff Howe (USFWS South Florida Ecological Services Office), John Tupy (USFWS South Florida Ecological Services Office)

Overview

This project evaluated habitat conditions for two species found in the imperiled pine rockland ecosystem—the Rim Rock Crowned Snake (Tantilla oolitica) and the Key Ring-Necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus acricus). The Rim Rock Crowned Snake historically occurred in eastern Miami-Dade County (hereafter, mainland) as well as throughout the Florida Keys, whereas the Key Ring-Necked Snake occurs only in lower Florida Keys (Enge et al. 2004; Mays and Enge 2016). Both species are very elusive, small (< 20 cm in length) and primarily fossorial. Pine rockland habitat is rapidly disappearing in South Florida, with < 3 percent of its original extent remaining. Saltwater intrusion from hurricanes and sea-level rise (SLR), and human development pose the greatest threats to the longevity of this ecosystem which, in turn, places species that are endemic to this unique habitat at risk of extinction.

The Rim Rock Crowned Snake and the Key Ringed-Necked Snake are being considered for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). To aid the agency’s decision, it must be able to forecast species’ responses to potential future environmental conditions, as well as to different conservation and management actions. Yet, the information needed to complete these forecasts—such as population trends, life history traits, habitat use, and future land use and climate conditions—is often lacking for most rare species. This is especially problematic for assessments of species resiliency to changes in climate and land use.

When these types of data are lacking, information on habitat quality can be used to help determine how a species will respond to change. First, this project gathered current and historical records for both species from various sources such as museum specimens, inventories, and other personal account. Then, we identified potential future changes in habitat that could result from different management actions, such as habitat acquisition or restoration, and environmental conditions, such as changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and rates of sea level rise. Researchers then explored the potential impacts of these habitat condition changes on the Rim Rock Crowned Snake and Key Ring-Necked Snake.

This information can be used by the USFWS to help make decisions about the need to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act and could inform the conservation, management, and recovery of other at-risk species found in the pine rockland ecosystem.

View a SE CASC Science Seminar Series presentation summarizing this project: