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Sea-level rise and refuge habitats for tidal marsh species: Can artificial islands save the California Ridgway's rail?


Terrestrial species living in intertidal habitats experience refuge limitation during periods of tidal inundation, which may be exacerbated by seasonal variation in vegetation structure, tidal cycles, and land-use change. Sea-level rise projections indicate the severity of refuge limitation may increase. Artificial habitats that provide escape cover during tidal inundation have been proposed as a temporary solution to alleviate these limitations. We tested for evidence of refuge habitat limitation in a population of endangered California Ridgway's rail (Rallus obsoletus obsoletus; hereafter California rail) through use of artificial floating island habitats provided during two winters. Previous studies demonstrated that California rail mortality was especially high during the winter and periods of increased tidal inundation, suggesting that tidal refuge habitat is critical to survival. In our study, California rail regularly used artificial islands during higher tides and daylight hours. When tide levels inundated the marsh plain, use of artificial islands was at least 300 times more frequent than would be expected if California rails used artificial habitats proportional to their availability (0.016%). Probability of use varied among islands, and low levels of use were observed at night. These patterns may result from anti-predator behaviors and heterogeneity in either rail density or availability of natural refuges. Endemic saltmarsh species are increasingly at risk from habitat change resulting from sea-level rise and development of adjacent uplands. Escape cover during tidal inundation may need to be supplemented if species are to survive. Artificial habitats may provide effective short-term mitigation for habitat change and sea-level rise in tidal marsh environments, particularly for conservation-reliant species such as California rails.

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