- Queensland Government
Rising sea levels appear to have wiped out a rodent species living on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. This is the first documented case of a mammal species going extinct due to manmade climate change.
The mammal, called the Bramble Cay melomys, was a long-tailed, whiskered critter, with reddish-brown fur that was about the same size as a small rat. It was considered the only mammal endemic – or native – to the Great Barrier Reef, living on a tiny island in the northeast Torres Strait between Queensland, Australia and the southern shores of Papua New Guinea.
While melomys had been abundant on the island in the 1970s, their populations had dwindled rapidly since over the last few decades, leading them to being listed as endangered. They were last spotted on the island in 2009.
From August to September 2014, scientists conducted a thorough survey effort of the island, using traps, cameras and daytime searches to try to spot and count the species – all to no avail – leading them to conclude that it had likely gone extinct.
“The assertion that Australia has lost another mammal species can be made with considerable confidence,” they wrote in their report to Queensland’s government. And anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change was blamed for the extinction.
“The key factor responsible for the death of the Bramble Cay melomys is almost certainly high tides and surging seawater, which has traveled inland across the island,” Luke Leung, study co-author and scientist at the University of Queensland told The New York Times.
The seawater is believed to have destroyed the creature’s small habitat. In March of 2014, the livable surface of the island had shrunk to its smallest point ever and refuge sites used by the critters, such as rock caves and crevices, had started to disappear. This also led to problems with food. While its diet was poorly researched, melomys were believed to be mostly vegetarian and they had to compete for food with nesting seabirds and turtles.
Many believe this extinction is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Climate change is putting enormous strains on species all across the globe, with a 2015 report finding that one sixth of the planet’s species could face extinction as a result.
“Certainly, extinction and climatic change has gone hand in hand throughout the history of the world,” John White, an ecologist from Deakin University, told The Guardian. “So, if this is one of the first, it is more than likely not going to be the last.”