The rat-like Bramble Cay melomys is the first mammal to go extinct because of human-induced climate change. The conservationists who made this sad discovery now admit they were actually trying to capture these rodents for a captive breeding program—but they arrived too late.
As we reported earlier this month, a research team from Queensland’s Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Queensland conducted an exhaustive search on Bramble Cay, the only known home of the melomys, but they failed to find a single individual. In their ensuing report, the scientists said the “root cause” of the extinction was sea-level rise, but the real culprit was cited as global warming. These animals, who lived on this island for thousands of years, were washed away by repeated storm surges.
But as The Guardian now reports, the scientists who conducted the research were actually expecting to capture some specimens, and then bring them back to Australia to start a captive breeding program. To their horror, they arrived too late.
“My colleagues and I were devastated,” team leader Ian Gynther told The Guardian.
Prior to their excursion to Bramble Cay—a tiny island off the north coast of Australia—the conservationists spent five months trying to get the necessary permissions for captive breeding from various Australian governmental agencies and stakeholders. They also had to craft a plan for holding the species at the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus, and raise the necessary funds.
“Captive breeding is an expensive undertaking, requiring a significant commitment of staff, resources and time by the parties involved,” explained Gynther. “This is particularly true for a program that is likely to be required for an indefinite period, as would have been the case for the Bramble Cay melomys.”
Going into the project, the researchers had cause to be worried. The last time a person saw any of these critters was in 2009. Two short surveys of the island, one in 2011 and one in 2014, failed to come up with a single specimen. Hopeful, Gynther believed a more systematic search would reveal at least some melomys.
“By the time it was apparent that a captive breeding program was required as an urgent conservation action, it was already too late,” Gynther said. To which he added: “[The extinction] highlights that conservation recovery actions need to be highly responsive, especially where climate change impacts are involved.”
No doubt, the effects of human-induced climate change are happening rapidly, and we’re already playing catch-up with the consequences. We’re in the midst of a new mass extinction, one that happens to be of our doing. It’s time to act accordingly.