Human-caused climate change is threatening the fate of an endangered California rodent that plays a crucial role in the Mojave Desert food chain, UC Davis researchers have found.
Amargosa voles, preyed on by 25 species of carnivore, depend on rare marshes in the Mojave Desert to survive. Researchers at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have found, however, that the voles are exposed to increased risk of extinction due to climate change making the marshes hotter and drier.
Satellite photos of vegetation showed climate change’s effect on the marshes over several decades. Climate change has intensified the California drought by between 8 to 27 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to research by the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and the University of Idaho.
The findings deepen concerns over the effects of climate change on the California marsh ecosystem, said project lead Janet Foley, professor at the veterinary medicine school. She said occasional rainy seasons are not enough to keep the marshes wet and sustainable.
“(The marshes) were all wet in the past, and the water started to recede,” Foley said. “These rodents are some of the most abundant sources of protein in California, and their existence is important in sustaining the food chain of the marshes.”
The vole population has steadily decreased over the last two decades and is down now to 500 in the state. The project team has bred dozens of voles in captivity since 2014 to save them from going extinct, but that may not be enough.
According to Deana Clifford, the project co-lead from the fish and wildlife department, artificially modifying water flows in the marshes can reduce the risk of extinction for voles. Researchers could create additional habitats for the voles by connecting existing marshes, she said.
“Our own conservation effort can only do so much,” Clifford said. “We have to take our findings and work with local agencies and partners to save the species.”