Melomys: The Little Brown Rat Has Left The Coal Mine*

Melomys is the First Mammal Extinction Directly Attributed To Anthropomorphic Global Warming.

One of the characteristics of a certain type of climate denier is a tendency to spout ignorant quips in the face of climate facts. For example, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind a little more warmer weather”or “who cares what goes on at the North Pole, I don’t live there.”

So we may expect a similar reaction from this unique population segment when they hear of the ultimate extinction of a little brown Australian rat known as the Bramble Cay Melomys. 

“Hey one less rat in the world. I hate rats.”

Australia’s “little brown rat” is not a particularly aesthetic creature, but it does have the distinction of being the first mammal to permanently exit the planet due to anthropogenic climate change. It was native to the Great Barrier Reef and lived on a small island in the Torres Straits.

But not a single melomys has been spotted since 2009 and the species was finally declared officially extinct this week. The cause was the rapid sea level rise driven by warming oceans, accompanied by devastating storm surges that wiped out habitat and food supply. Since these are burrowing mammals, many likely drowned in their homes.

While humans tend to focus on designer species such as whales, elephants and big cats, there is a very long list of other species that have recently disappeared, or are under extreme threat of extinction. As most people are aware, the loss of any species in the food chain changes everything.

Over the ages, species have always gone extinct and been replaced. But has more and more humans swarm the planet, things have changed. The current extinction rate – sometimes known as the Sixth Great Extinction – is approximately 100 extinctions per million species per year. This rate is 1,000 times higher than historic background rates. That rate is expected to climb as global warming accelerates.

In most geological ages of the past, species have adjusted to changing climate conditions by moving. Whether flora or fauna, species that live in alpine environments move up. Species that live in warming regions move toward the poles if they can. But in the Anthropocene, the rate of change is hundreds of time faster than in eras past. Species have barely started packing before they are gone.

Humans, the most mobile of species, has always adjusted through migration, voluntary or involuntary. The current global refugee crisis is due in large part to collapsing ecosystems on every continent.

Ultimately, Australia’s little brown rat met an untimely end because it was unable to migrate. It ran out of island.

Humans will also continue to relocate on a mass scale…unless they run out of planet.


RECENTLY EXTINCT

Although the melomys is the first mammal to be declared extinct specifically due to global warming, it is only the latest in a growing list of mammals (and birds and planets) declared extinct in the past few decades. Generally speaking, cause for extinction are complex and virtually always incorporate some combination of human activity and climate change.

  • Vaquita Porpoise  2017
  • Javan Rhino 2011
  • Aloatra Grebe 2010
  • Baiaji Dolphin 2006
  • West African Rhino 2001
  • Dusky Seaside Sparrow 1989
  • Golden Toad 1989

Departing soon

  • Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Down to 3)
  • Most amphibians are threatened with extinction

You may also be aware on the margins of your consciousness that the global insect population is in steep decline. If your reaction is “Good, I hate insects,” well, you are probably having the wrong reaction.

* Understood to be a mixed metaphor.

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