Rabbit Species Named After Playboy's Hugh Hefner Faces Extinction

Rising sea levels threaten the existence of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit in Florida.

The Lower Keys marsh rabbit, known to scientists as Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, is facing habitat loss and extinction. (Photo: Jason Schmidt)

For the Florida marsh rabbit named after notorious playboy Hugh Hefner, a shrinking habitat may signal its demise, despite the rabbit’s prolific breeding habits.

The Lower Keys marsh rabbit—known to scientists as Sylvilagus palustris hefneri—is a medium-sized dark brown rabbit that makes its home among Florida Keys marshes. The naming of new species after celebrities and notable individuals is nothing new to the scientific community, and when it’s done for an endangered species, it often helps bring attention to its plight. In the case of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, it was identified as a separate species in the 1980s, based on research funded by the Playboy Foundation. 

But creeping sea levels mean that the rabbit’s limited environment is in trouble. Once plentiful, the Lower Keys marsh rabbit has been on the endangered species list since 1990. They are found only in isolated parts of the Florida Keys—particularly on Boca Chica, Sugarloaf, and Big Pine—and little by little, rising sea levels, imperceptible to humans, have reduced the marsh rabbit’s habitat by 64 percent.

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While human development is not directly to blame, new buildings in the Keys prevent the rabbit’s habitat from migrating inland, thus reducing the amount of area the animal can call home. More human development spells disaster for the marsh rabbit, not only in terms of habitat loss, but in greater vulnerability to pollution, accidental vehicular slaughter, and unnatural predation by stray cats. Scientists estimate there are only about 300 marsh rabbits in existence and predict the species will become extinct within 10 years if more aggressive conservation measures are not taken.

During the last century, the sea level rose six to eight inches, and its rate of rise has accelerated within the last decade. In a state like Florida, with an abundant coastline, escalating sea levels means almost certain devastation for many of the unique species that live there. 

Jeff Gore, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, echoed the threat of rising sea levels, saying, “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.”

As humans, we may be able to stave off the threat longer than the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, but ultimately, we too will feel the effects of a decimated environment. We may have a little bit more ingenuity and adaptability on our side, but we can’t escape the fact that we are also subject to the Earth’s changes. If we don’t heed the warning of the marsh rabbit’s decline, we might be setting ourselves up for an even greater fall.

Do you think the Lower Keys marsh rabbit population stands a chance against rising sea levels? Is this an animal worth saving?

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