Interns: Florida Keys are Key to Coping with Climate Change

Florida Leafwing Butterfly - one of many species being studied by SCA members in the field

SCA Members study Silver Rice Rat, Pineland Croton, Butterflies and Osprey

Most of us consider the Florida Keys to be a paradise. But they are also a laboratory.

Over the past century, ocean waters here have risen nine inches and scientists predict they could climb another two feet by 2060.  As most of the Keys’ land mass is a mere five feet above sea level or less, SCA intern and AmeriCorps member Sean Johnson-Bice notes the islands present “a case study for the effects of climate change on endemic species.”

Since last fall, Sean and fellow intern Lauren Breza have been performing a wide range of field research for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges.  Recently, they set out to monitor the silver rice rat, an endangered species found only in the Lower Keys.  “We were using ten-year old maps to locate their habitats,” Lauren notes, “and when we got there the sites were under nearly two feet of water.”

“We were knee-deep,” Sean concurs.  The interns discovered the rat population had moved to higher ground and, although a formal analysis is still to come, their numbers appear to be significantly down. 

Lauren also assisted in evaluating a new way to locate Pineland Croton, an important shade-intolerant plant that may soon be overtaken by taller hardwoods.  She warns that would trigger a troubling domino effect.  “Crotons are crucial to the well-being of two endangered butterflies,” Lauren notes, “and our director came up with a new protocol that’s provided a different perspective on conducting prescribed burns.” 

SCA intern Sean Johnson-Bice devised(i.e. jerry-rigged) a way to monitor opsrey nests using a GoPro lifted with helium balloons. 

Both interns enjoy a good amount of autonomy and say their supervisors are open to their input.  As suspicions grow that some of the Keys’ ospreys may, in fact, be a genetically-distinct species, Sean proposed a new study to refuge officials and eventually to the state fish and wildlife commission.  They approved his idea and, with remote-controlled drones being beyond his budget, Sean created a “cool contraption” that lifts a GoPro camera with helium balloons to monitor osprey nests. Should the birds turn out to be a sub-population, Sean’s research could spur more funding to protect them.

“As a field tech, usually someone else takes your data and works it,” he says. “Here I have opportunity to do the second the half of the equation: run GIS analyses, statistical models, synthesize data and write up reports.  It’s awesome.” 

“The environment we’re working in faces almost every kind of environmental problem,” Lauren adds. “Habitat loss, invasive species, sea level rise. The amount of information I am taking in and the experience I’m getting is astronomical.”

The interns’ work will shape a habitat management plan that factors in contemporary influences, but both are aware that the clock is ticking. “It’s definitely sad to watch this region change,” Sean states.  “If these islands are someday under water, who knows what will happen to Key deer?  They can’t relocate because they can’t compete against the white-tailed deer. 

“At same time, we’re contributing to an understanding of a unique case study that will help future generations cope with rising sea levels. That’s what drives us every day.”

BELOW: SCA intern Lauren Breza helped evaluate a new way to locate Pineland Croton, a shade intolerant plant that’s necessary to the survival of two local endangered butterfly species,  and in danger of being wiped out itself by taller hardwoods. 

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