Bramble Cay Melomys Went Extinct (2016)

The Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lived on one small island in the Great Barrier Reef region, was declared extinct on June 14, 2016.  The extinction is notable as the first extinction of a mammal caused by climate change.

the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent, lived only on the small island of Bramble Cay in Australia (photo by Ian Bell, ENP, State of Queensland)

            The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) was about 5 inches long, with a similar length tail.  It had a rough scaly-looking tail—leading to its other common name as the Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat. It lived in shallow burrows under the island’s vegetation and was probably an omnivore, feeding on both plants and sea-bird eggs from the numerous bird colonies on the island. 

The rat picked a tough place to evolve.  Scientists hypothesize that it had lived isolated on Bramble Cay, a 10-acre coral reef island, for at least one million years.  The island is the northernmost extent of the Great Barrier Reef, lying in the midst of the Torres Strait, a transportation corridor between Australia and Papua New Guinea (learn more about the Great Barrier Reef here). The low-lying island is covered over a portion of its area by grasses and low shrubs, but the vegetation is greatly disturbed by the nesting activities of sea birds and sea turtles.  The island is one of the premier nesting sites in Australia for green turtles. 

Bramble Cay as seen from the water in 2014; note the extensive bird life (photo by Ian Bynther, EHP, State of Queensland)

            The island is also buffeted by storms and strong tides that cover large portions of its surface at times.  However, with rising sea level and stronger storms associated with climate change, the island has been subject to more frequent and more extensive flooding in recent years.

            That flooding proved too much for the Bramble Cay melomys.  Either because of loss of vegetation or from direct drowning of individuals, the population had been declining slowly. Because of the decline and the species isolation, the IUCN Red Book had classified the species as critically endangered beginning in 1996.  A proposed captive-breeding project never got off the ground.  The last confirmed sighting of the rat was in 2009, and repeated surveys since then have captured no specimens.  In 2016, both the Australian government and IUCN declared the species extinct—the first mammal in the world to succumb to climate change.

References:

Ellison, Joanna C.  1998.  Natural History of Bramble Cay, Torres Strait.  Smithsonian Institution, Atoll Research Bulletin No. 455.  Available at:  https://web.archive.org/web/20090226041803/http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/duffy/ARB/450-458/455.pdf.  Accessed June 14, 2017.

Hance, Jeremy.  2016.  ‘Devastated’:  scientists too late to captive breed mammal lost to climate change.  The Guardian, June 29, 2016.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2016/jun/29/bramble-cay-melomys-australia-extinction-climate-change-great-barrier-reef. Accessed June 14, 2017

IUCN Red Book.  2016.  Melomys rubicola.  Available at:  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/13132/0#end_uses. Accessed June 14, 2017

Queensland Government, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.  Bramble Cay melomys.  Available at:  https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/threatened-species/endangered/endangered-animals/bramble_cay_melomys.html. Accessed June 14, 2017

Smith, Lauren.  2016.  Extinct:  Bramble Cay melomys.  Australian Geographic June 15, 2016.  Available at:  http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2016/06/extinct-bramble-cay-melomys. Accessed June 14, 2017

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
January February March April May June July August September October November December