A flame-crested shorebird that makes one of the longest migrations on the planet has become the first bird declared threatened by the effects of climate change, federal wildlife officials said Tuesday.
The rufa red knot, which travels about 18,000 miles every year from wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego to Canada, joins the polar bear as another species suffering from shrinking habitat and food supplies caused by rising sea levels and climbing temperatures, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. The red knot’s range covers 27 countries and 40 states including Florida, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
“The listing today sends a clear message about the threat that species like the red knot are facing from the effects of a changing global climate system,” Ashe said.
Species that inhabit the planet’s extreme environments face more dire threats as coastlines shift and climate change interrupts food chains and expose species’ dependency on one another. To make its long flight, the red knot needs to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs so the bird times its flights and resting spots to coincide with the annual inland migration crabs make along the east coast of the U.S. to mate.
“If all of a sudden you hear on the news that gasoline is very limited between Missouri and Nevada, we might think twice about making that migration. But the red knot doesn’t have the choice,” Ashe said.
In the 1980s, the crabs were over-harvested for their blue blood, which is used in injectable drugs. The number of red knots plummeted by about 75 percent. After rules governing crab harvests went into effect in 2012, red knot numbers stabilized but did not rebound.
Federal officials are working on establishing a critical habitat for the red knot and expect to rule on a final plan in mid 2016, Ashe said.
“Climate change already acting on this vulnerable species is a looming threat, changing the availability of food and the timing of the availability of food,” he said. “So the most challenging aspect of conserving the red knot is going to be understanding the effects of changing climate.”