via the Scientific American
Climate change has claimed its first mammal casualty, with the reported extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola). The last of these Australian marsupials is believed to have disappeared around 2009, but the release last week of a report by the Queensland government stating its probable extinction and the cause—sea-level rise induced by climate change—made worldwide news.
The death of the last individual of the last population of a mammal species, indeed of any species, is as irreversible as it is profoundly sad. Yet the widespread coverage of this extinction and the subsequent outpouring of concern from across society tapped into something else.
Species go extinct every day with little fanfare or report. The last Australian mammal to go extinct before the melomys was the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) in 2009, with almost no press. The melomys extinction was covered because it ended the idea that climate change will be a concern for species only in the future. That reflects a fundamental, widespread problem with how we think about and report on climate change, especially when it comes to nature and conservation. Too many people still think that climate change is a problem that we can deal with later.
It’s easy to see why. Climatologists use long-term forecasts, on timescales such as 50–100 years, and for good reason. It takes long periods of time for changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to cause change. To look ahead for a scientist brings increased certainty — we know that there will be a problem to address. And politicians like to emphasize the long term for the opposite reason: they can stress the uncertainties in the detail, and talk about action without needing to take any. Yet these distant forecasts have also become the basis of how people assess and communicate the probable effects of climate change on species and ecosystems. And as the Bramble Cay melomys shows, we see those impacts now.
The world’s climate system is already seriously disrupted: the global average temperature is already nearly 1°C warmer than it should be. Across Earth, we are seeing radical shifts in daily temperatures, rainfall regimes and the timing of seasons, as well as overall increases in the number and intensity of droughts, cyclones and floods. It is now accepted that we have moved beyond the natural climate cycle and that, even if climate-mitigation policies are implemented immediately, it will take centuries to recover.
You will never see one.
You might not want to, but up until a decade ago, there was at least a chance to see the Bramble Kay Melomys, even if most people didn’t want to.
Because it was a rat – the mosaic-tailed rat, to be exact, the only mammal species that called Australia’s Great Barrier Reef its natural home.
The species lived on Bramble Key, a small coral cay that, in total, measures 150 metres across and 340 metres long.
Between 1993 and 2014, the sea level in the area rose by almost 40 centimetres, and increased storm action has seen the cay inundated with salt water during storms.
Researchers were blunt about what caused the extinction: “Significantly, this probably represents the first recorded mammalian extinction due to anthropogenic climate change,” they wrote in a report that appeared just over a week ago on an Australian government website.
A report in the journal Science in 2015 suggested that’s a fate that many more species will face. In fact, scientists argue that one-sixth of the world’s animal species face a real risk of extinction because of climate change.