Mankind just killed off its first species of mammal because of climate change

By 2050, up to 37 per cent of the world’s species could become committed to extinction due to climate change

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The Independent Online

The first species of mammal has been wiped out because of human-caused climate change.

The Bramble Cay melomys was an endemic species to the Great Barrier Reef and lived on a tiny island in the eastern Torres Strait off the coast of Queensland. Scientists from the University of Queensland and the Queensland Government led a survey in March 2014 that failed to find any evidence of the Bramble Cay melomys in their last known environment. The animals were last seen in 2009, according to records.  

The study, first reported by the Guardian, concluded the habitat was destroyed following rising sea levels, resulting in the loss of 97 per cent of the animals' habitat.

Climate change plays a huge role in the possible extinction of certain species of animals. The WWF’s most recent State of the Planet Report in 2014 found that the largest reduction of species is in the tropics, where 63 per cent of wildlife has declined since 1970. The worst affected areas it found were central and South America, with a regional decline of 83 per cent. Species in Australia and New Zealand are also considered to be highly at risk as they have a high level of animals that are not found anywhere else in the world. Australia’s white lemuroid ringtail possum is also threatened by climate change. The species is vulnerable to temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, and would not be able to survive in this heat for more than four or five hours.

Professor Adrian M Lister, a researcher at the Natural History Museum’s Earth Sciences department, told The Independent that extinction from climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. “Habitats are being threatened and are disappearing due to drought and rising temperatures and sea levels caused by climate change. Normally species should be able to shift their ranges of where they can live in response to this. We have seen some insects and birds appearing in the UK that never were here before after shifting their range northwards where it’s cooler. However, human destruction of habitats often interferes with this, and for some animals that already live on the northernmost rims, they will have nowhere else to go, and that’s when they become seriously at risk. 

“Some species have a limited geographic range and are not able to adapt. The world is changing at such a fast pace, that in most cases natural Darwinian selection would not happen in time, leading to extinction. It’s too late to stop some extinction; we know the majority of species are being reduced and some will become extinct over the next few decades. But we cannot just stop climate change and the world takes a long time to recover. There will be extinction, but there is still everything to play for and countries need to stick to their commitment from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and even exceed it to help stop it.”

The Hainan gibbon is currently the world's rarest mammal, with only approximately 26 thought to be left in China's rainforests. But these animals could face extinction due to climate change, according to Dr Samuel Turvey, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Zoology. The gibbons live on a very small patch of a mountain rainforest, and any changes to this habitat caused by shifting climate changes could have grave repercussions for a species that has adapted to such a limited area.

But some experts think the effects of climate change could be worse. Dr Jonathan Bennie, research fellow at Exeter University, says: “There is lots of evidence showing we are living through a time of mass extinction, as life on Earth is being affected by humans to an unprecedented extent. The direct effects of climate change, such as wiping out low-lying habitats, will happen increasingly in the future."

In a study published in Nature, professor Chris Thomas estimated that by 2050, between 15 and 37 per cent of the world’s species could become committed to extinction due to climate change.

“Given the uncertainty about the rates of climate change and how rapidly we will be able to cut emissions, as well as how species will respond or adapt, these figures can only be taken as rough estimates,” adds Dr Bennie. 

But Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystem research at Oxford University, says climate change is not the most important factor in extinction as invasion from other species of plants and animals, and destruction of habitats, are the biggest causes of extinction. He said environments are fragmented already from other pressures and the effects of climate change are the remaining factor that pushes it over the edge, which has been evident in coral reef and island flooding.

Heather Sohl, chief advisor of wildlife at WWF-UK, says: “This news should act as a stark reminder of the grave threat climate change imposes on many species and people across the globe. Sadly, it’s too late for the Bramble Cay melomys, but it highlights the urgency and need for action. This isn’t tomorrow’s problem – climate change has consequences on today’s world. The impacts could be vast, from African elephants having to range further in search of water, the bleaching of the barrier reef in Australia, and small island nations in the Pacific at threat from rising sea levels. Here in the UK, our emissions are part of the problem and we must ensure our government produces a strong strategy to meet our climate change targets this autumn.” 

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