RIP to the First Mammal Officially Killed by Climate Change
The tiny creature's demise has stirred up great controversy.
On Monday, a release from Australia’s Department of the Environment and Energy confirmed the sad fate of the Bramble Cay melomys, a tiny brown rat that is officially extinct, very likely due to climate change. Though the release officially lays the creature to rest, those who have watched its fate over five years have found little peace. Scientists, federal officials, and the local governments are now squabbling over the casket.
The extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys was marked by little fanfare. An announcement about its extinction is tucked away in a release issued on Monday by Melissa Price, who serves as Australia’s Minister for the Environment. The release classifies the endangered status of 11 Australian plants and animals, including the Bramble Cay melomys, which was transferred from the “endangered category” to the “extinct category.” It is only mentioned in a reference table at the bottom of the page.
More importantly, despite the fact that climate change has been implicated in the decline, and possible extinction, of the tiny mammal several times in the past, the phrase climate change is completely absent from the release.
Climate Change and the Bramble Cay Melomys
In a 2016 report, scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia noted that the consistent rise in sea level and increases in storm frequency on Bramble Cay — a small, sandy island off the Great Barrier Reef — were the major drivers behind the rat’s dwindling numbers. The conclusion of that report led the state of Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science to confirm the animal’s extinction in 2017. On the state government’s site, the creature is referred to in the past tense, and climate change is implicated in its demise:
Available evidence indicates that the anthropogenic climate change-induced impacts of sea-level rise, coupled with an increased frequency and intensity of weather events that produced damaging storm surges and extreme high water levels, particularly during the last decade, were most likely responsible for the extirpation of the Bramble Cay melomys from Bramble Cay.
The 2016 report sparked international attention. At the time, outlets from the Guardian to National Geographic contemporaneously reported that the melomys was the first mammal to go extinct due to climate change. The federal government of Australia, however, didn’t officially acknowledge the animal’s extinction until Price’s release this week.
Ignored by the Federal Government
Importantly, the federal release doesn’t make any special note of the role of climate change in the melomys’ unique fate. Instead, it focuses on the pressing and tragic decline of all endangered species in the country but doesn’t go into details about the driver behind those changes. Inverse has reached out to Price regarding these details and will update the article accordingly.
The fact that Australia’s current federal government was late to the game in declaring the extinction of the bramble cay melomys and failed to draw specific attention to the role of climate change in its demise has invited wide condemnation about the government’s attitude toward climate change. Queensland’s Environmental Minister Leeanne Enoch, for one, has criticized the lack of emphasis on climate change in the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys in Price’s report.
“We have consistently called on [Prime Minister] Scott Morrison and Melissa Price to show leadership on climate change, instead of burying their heads in the sand,” Enoch said Tuesday, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. “How many more species do we have to lose for the federal government to take action?”
The spokesperson for Australia’s federal Ministry of Environment, Geoff Richardson, told The Sydney Morning Herald that research had been ongoing in the intervening years since the 2016 report, and that the government wanted to make “absolutely certain” before they declared it gone for good. The 2016 report, for its part, mentioned that there could be some melomys individuals on Papua New Guinea, noting that “it may be premature to declare the Bramble Cay melomys extinct on a global scale.”
As of today, however, the message is clear: the Bramble Cay melomys is gone, and maybe has been for years. But while the Australian government has finally officially recognized the loss of the little brown rat, there’s still little emphasis on the sad, human-caused reason that it no longer exists.
Update Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. Eastern: Melissa Price, Australia’s Minister for the Environment told Inverse that the agency declared the Bramble Cay melomys extinct “following exhaustive surveys undertaken in all known habitat leaving no reasonable doubt.”
In regards to the causes of the Bramble Cay melomys’ extinction, she added:
Being confined to a single, very small and isolated location, the Bramble Cay Melomys was particularly susceptible to a wide range of threats. Available evidence indicates that frequent and intense weather events during the decade 2004 to 2014 produced damaging storm surges and extreme high water levels, which were likely significant contributors.