Is first mammal extinction by human-caused climate change a 'canary in coal mine' moment?

The disappearance of Bramble Cay melomys sheds light on humankind's impact on the world and the rise of extinctions in our lifetime.
A grassland melomys, which is closely related to the extinct Bramble Cay melomys. (Rebecca Diete and Luke Leung)

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A small Australian rodent, the Bramble Cay melomys, is the first mammal believed to go extinct as a result of human-made climate change. 

The little brown rodent lived on the small island of Bramble Cay in Australia's Great Barrier Reef where its last known appearance was in 2004.

Luke Leung, a wildlife biologist and senior lecturer in the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland and co-author of a government report on the Bramble Cay melomys' extinction, says it wasn't until 2014 that they were able to confirm the mammal's disappearance. 

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      "It's like going to the beach, you can find everything [at Bramble Cay]," Leung says, "it's only 300 metres long and 100 metres wide, so we were very confident that these species, unfortunately, has become extinct." 

      The reason for the rodent's extinction, Leung explains, is due to vegetation on the cay dying out because of salt exposure from rising water levels and storm surges, leaving the melomys without a food source. While there is the possibility of Bramble Cay melomys living in nearby Papua New Guinea, Leung says that chance extremely small and says such a species would be closely related. 

      Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, says the extinction rates we're currently seeing are "very, very high."

      "The basic rule here is if you are seeing species go extinct in your own lifetime, then something very, very strange is going on, because species should go extinct very, very rarely. We've sort of become inured to the idea of species going extinct, but it's not something that should happen." - Elizabeth  Kolbert , author of  The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

      The factors contributing to the normalcy of extinction aren't unknown dangers — carbon emissions, poaching, over-fishing, deforestation, introduction of new species or pathogens to unequipped environments — all of which Kolbert says can be traced back to something we, as humans, have done.

      "We need to try to get out of the way and let as many species as possible get through this sort of time of crisis."

      This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Karin Marley.