Did climate change kill off this species?

The Bramble Cay melomys

Queensland government

Climate change might have one of its biggest casualties to date. A study published this month out of Australia reveals that the disappearance of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent, from its habitat along the Great Barrier Reef may be the first recorded extinction of a mammal as a result of climate change brought on by humans.

The sobering study was co-authored by Ian Gynther from Queensland's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and Natalie Waller and Luke Leung from the University of Queensland. The comprehensive survey of the missing small mammal population was carried out from August through September 2014.

The Bramble Cay melomys -- also known as the "mosaic-tailed rat" -- lived on a cay, a reef island made up of coral rubble and sand, located in the eastern Torres Strait. It was known as the only mammal species native to the Great Barrier Reef area. According to the study, a limited March 2014 survey was unable to detect the species in the region. This prompted the team to carry out the more extensive survey to see if the animals were indeed wiped out.

The survey involved a combination of day and nighttime searches and the use of traps and cameras to try to detect any physical or visual evidence that the mammals still lived in the area.

The team reported that a professional fisherman who visited the bay annually for the past decade stated that the last recorded sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was in late 2009.

"For low-lying islands like Bramble Cay, the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events are compounded by the impacts from anthropogenic climate change-driven sea-level rise," the researchers wrote.

The impact of climate change on the area was pretty drastic -- the Bramble Cay melomys lost 97 percent of its habitat in a mere 10 years.

However, officials held out hope that the species may still have a foothold on some neighboring islands, although no proof has been found so far. Queensland's Department of Environment and Heritage Protection's website reported that there "has been speculation that the species may also occur on other islands in the Torres Strait or in Papua New Guinea."

"Consequently, at this stage, it may be premature to declare the Bramble Cay melomys extinct on a global scale," it said.

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