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Baja California Lagoons Project

Conserving Coastal Lagoons through the Ridgway’s Rail

Have you ever heard of an umbrella species? These are organisms that, if protected, can also help protect entire ecosystems. One example is the endangered light-footed Ridgway’s rail (Rallus obsoletus levipes), a bird that lives in salty marshes and lagoons along the coast of Southern California and northwestern Baja California.

Hundreds of years ago, Southern California was teeming with coastal lagoonsestuaries protected from the sea in salty, lake-like formations. These lagoons create unique ecosystems where a massive array of wildlife can flourish. They also provide invaluable services like regulating our climate, cycling nutrients, protecting our coasts, and more. However, because of development and threats like non-native species and urban disturbances, coastal lagoons in California have declined both in size and health, affecting the native organisms that inhabit them.

Because the light-footed Ridgway’s rail can be found on both sides of the border, it serves as an indicator of sorts, allowing us to understand how the bird is impacted by different variables, but its successful conservation will require a binational effort Because of habitat loss and development, the rail was designated endangered when the U.S. congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1970. Now sea-level rise poses a further risk. Populations in Baja California, Mexico may be faring better than their relatives in California, likely because many coastal estuaries in Mexico are still relatively intact and healthy—although not without threat. This gives us a chance to study these feathered “dual citizens” and understand how to best protect them from further decline.

Scientists from The Nat are collaborating with Mexican partners who are studying the rail’s population, including its status, movements, genetics, and ecology. Our museum’s role is to document the diversity around the lagoons—all the other organisms under the rail’s umbrella, some of which have important interactions with the rail.

Specifically, our Mexican partners are studying the rails in the coastal lagoons of the Bahía de Todos Santos and Bahía de San Quintín via standardized monitoring surveys, GPS telemetry, and genetic techniques. Additionally, assessments of the estuary habitat and multi-taxa ecological surveys of the surrounding uplands give a bigger picture of the ecosystem. By focusing on relatively healthy lagoon ecosystems in Mexico, the information produced will not only help to conserve these lagoons, but can also inform conservation efforts in California. At the same time, our combined efforts will continue to build and strengthen binational collaboration, conservation, and science.

We would like to thank our key project partners Terra Peninsular, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, University of Idaho, USGS, and CDFW for their valuable contributions to these efforts.

Special thanks to our additional project partners at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), Pro Esteros A.C., Conservación de Fauna del Noroeste, and California State University, Long Beach.