Photo: Luke Leung / University of Queensland
Man-made climate change has led to ocean acidification, a shrinking Arctic zone and warmer waters, but the battle against climate alteration appears to have taken its first, major casualty.
We mourn the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent species and the only endemic mammal of the Great Barrier Reef. Despite their best efforts, scientists have been unable to find any trace of the creatures in recent years, and the species has likely been removed from the planet for good.
Several animals are endangered by climate change, and it’s estimated that about one species in every six is facing extinction.
“The risk if we continue on our current trajectory is very high,” explained Mark C. Urban, an assistant professor and ecologist at the University of Connecticut. “If you look out your window and count six species and think that one of those will potentially disappear, that’s quite profound… Those losses would affect our economy, our cultures, our food security, our health. It really compels us to act.”
Jamie Carr, who works with the climate unit at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, states that, “The loss of one in six species would be an absolute tragedy, not only because it is sad to lose any part of our rich natural world, but also because biodiversity is fundamental in providing important functions and services, including to humans… Such significant changes to biological systems would undoubtedly have knock-on effects, and could potentially result in the collapse of entire systems.”
The melomys inhabited a small coral cay off the coast of Queensland, Australia. First recorded in 1845, their numbers were consistently high up through the late 1970s, but in 2014, it was recommended that their status be changed from “endangered” to “extinct,” when an extensive search for the animal came up empty-handed.
Natalie Waller and Luke Leung from the University of Queensland believe the animal’s dissipation was allegedly caused by rising sea-levels. Bramble Cay, the melomys’ home, sits a mere three miles above sea-level, and with limited space to run, the rodents were likely swamped by the ascending waters, drowning or losing their habitat in the process.
“For low-lying islands like Bramble Cay, the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events are compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise,” they explain in a new report. “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change.”
Over the last hundred years, global sea levels have risen by an average of 20 centimeters, but the waters of the Torres Straight surrounding Bramble Cay have risen by twice that much in just the last 20 years alone. The island also accommodates a number of green turtles and seabirds, and it’s unclear if their fates will duplicate the melomys’.
Waller and Leung haven’t lost all faith, however. They’re currently planning a search of Papua New Guinea, which they believe may house a population of melomys just waiting to be discovered. Until that day comes, an air of gloom will float in the skies above Bramble Cay over what seems to be a firm and irreversible loss to the animal kingdom.
“Certainly extinction and climatic change has gone hand in hand throughout the history of the world,” said Deakin University’s John White. “So, if this is one of the first, it is more than likely not going to be the last.”