NB: This article was first published June 2016.
The little mammal that went extinct before you knew it existed, the Bramble Cay melomys went down in history books last week as Climate Change's first mammalian victim.
This is momentous, right? An occasion you'll always remember, like you remember where you were the moment you found out that [insert famous person's name here] had died. Much anticipated, the Inconvenient Truth has finally arrived, and claimed its first extinction. Planet earth hereafter is changed.
Hi there, Climate Change. Welcome to the present. Nice to meet you.
Disappeared on our watch
Sarcasm aside, it's easy to see why the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) was so vulnerable to climate change. This little rodent was found only on Bramble Cay, a tiny island in the far north of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In fact, it was considered the Great Barrier Reef's only endemic mammal (how's that for ecological significance?). Restricted to a such small area that's barely above sea level, it was obvious that the Bramble Cay melomys would have a hard time surviving rising sea levels and tidal inundation.
The species' extinction risk was acknowledged by governments. Despite being once considered abundant, a paper published in 1983 suggested that the species' population compromised at most a few hundred individuals. However, in 1998 a population study estimated that it was at 93 individuals, but possibly as low as 57. Government surveys in 2002 and 2004 found just 10 and 12 individuals respectively, and a survey in 2011 found none. Both state and federal legislations listed the species as endangered, and its recovery plan was written in 2008. It even made the Queensland Government's Back-On-Track Species Prioritisation Framework, an ambitious plan to help recover the state's most threatened wildlife. It's safe to say someone knew there was a problem.
In March 2014, a government survey failed to find any evidence of the species. As such, a dedicated and intensive survey was undertaken during August and September 2014 as a last-ditch attempt to confirm the species' persistence. If found, the plan was to capture all remaining individuals and bring them into captivity to create an insurance population. But it was too little too late. No trace of a Bramble Cay melomys was found.
The official government report states that "The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals". Estimates are that the available habitat on Bramble Cay suffered a decline of 97% over a decade.
It didn't take much to wipe the species out, literally.
The authors conclude that "Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change".
Anecdotally, it is believed that the last Bramble Cay melomys' were seen in 2009.
The plight of the Bramble Cay melomys speaks of a greater problem which I find deeply upsetting: that we fail to act in the face of a problem we are fully aware of. We knew there was problem here for at least three decades, yet we did nothing about it. We dotted our i's and crossed our t's, got the species listed where it needed to be listed, wrote papers and plans, but we did not act.
We were fully aware that the Bramble Cay melomys was teetering with extinction, but we did not act.
We did not act.
That's the bottom line.
Famous for extinction
The Bramble Cay melomys was a species that almost no one knew existed until 14 June, 2016.
It was a species that rose to world fame quickly, overnight really, since its demise was clearly attributable to sea level rise, a direct result of climate change. Like the evidence we've all been waiting for.
We like to think of climate change as someone or something that will happen upon us in the future. It gets thrown around policy forums like an impending issue, one that someone should care about down the line, but not something we need to take very seriously now. We act like it's Tomorrow You's problem, but it's not. It's Today You's problem. It's today's problem for each and every one of us. Regardless of your moral standings around the persistence of species like the Bramble Cay melomys, climate change is having far-reaching consequences that affects all of humanity. Climate change arrived a long time ago, it's here right now, it will continue to be here, and we need to start acting like that.
Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world (yes, really), but I dare you to name just one of those species lost. Okay, maybe you know about the Thylacine (a.k.a. Tasmanian Tiger), whose last individual died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, but what about the Toolache Wallaby, gone the following year? Or the Christmas Island pipistrelle, whose lone survivor wasn't seen again after August 27, 2009? Probably not.
The fact is that our native mammals are disappearing without us ever knowing they were here. Apart from a handful of scientists and conservationists who try tirelessly to get their voices heard, most of us will never know what we've lost and what we're losing. We will never know the animals that share our country, the very animals that make Australia Australia. This to me is tragic.
So why does all this matter now? Why am I here, writing this blog post about a species that no longer exists? I'm here because preventing more extinctions requires action, and action comes only with public support, and public support requires knowledge. People cannot rally support for a species that they do not know exists. Simple as that.
If we can change that, we can change the world.
Farewell, Bramble Cay melomys
It breaks my heart to see another species gone, ostensibly the first mammal to climate change, and in my very home state no less. But if any good can come of this tragedy, let's hope that its extinction will ignite change.
Maybe the Bramble Cay melomys' extinction is the wake-up call we needed. Perhaps its overnight fame will help us to finally accept that climate change is here. Perhaps we will become more aware of the issues we face under a changing a climate, and perhaps it will spark some action. Perhaps we will realise that extinction is not just something that happened to the dinosaurs, but something that is happening right now, here on our doorstep and the world over. Perhaps we will start to take action to prevent more species going the way of Bramble Cay melomys.
If that happens then, well, talk about dying for cause.
R.I.P. Bramble Cay melomys. Let's hope we do better by your relatives.
Want to know more? Read the official government report here.