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Extinction Of Tiny Aussie Rat 'Shames' Australia To The Rest Of The World

Bramble Cay melomys, whose small population survived for years on a remote, isolated island, have become extinct.

Earlier this week the Federal Government quietly confirmed its extinction.

The confirmation, which scientists have suspected for more than a decade, was tucked away at the bottom of a press release from Environment Minister Melissa Price.

"Transfer from the Endangered Category to the Extinct Category," it stated.

It was a seemingly inconspicuous statement about a seemingly inconspicuous animal, that once lived on the northeastern edge of Australia's Torres Strait Islands.

For such a small species, whose population may have only ever peaked at a few hundred, the implications of its extinction go much beyond its own saddening demise.

It marked the first time a mammalian species has been recognised as being eradicated by man-made climate change.

A 2014 joint-report from the University of Queensland and the state Government, found the local extinction of the rat was "almost certainly" caused by ocean inundation leading to dramatic habitat loss and the possibility the rats themselves were swept out to sea.

"Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather event ... point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss," the report found.

Experts and activists who have spent years urging policymakers to follow through on plans to protect the species -- believe Australia has let down "our little brown rat".

"The current strategy is a failure," Federal Policy Director for the Wilderness Society, Tim Beshara, told 10 daily.

Beshara said Australia "easily holds the world record" in the threat to native species, with 111 mammals alone listed as either vulnerable or endangered.

"Losing a mammal species is a really, really big deal. It's something that is not meant to happen very often but in Australia, it's starting to happen way too often," Beshara said.

Beshara believes the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys "shames us" to the rest of the world, not only because the species likely took over five million years to evolve but because our management systems are outright failing.

"The Federal Government has an obligation to the Australian people and to biodiversity and they're doing f**ck all," Beshara said, claiming no authorities fulfilled a 2008 promise to establish monitoring programs and undertake field surveying to restore the melomys .

"When you start getting a species on the fringe falling over it's like the whole system is coming to collapse".

Alarmingly, Beshara and other experts warn Australia is facing an "ever-increasing extinction rate" of its native species.

Beshara said these range from the Christmas Island shrew which hasn't been seen in more than half a century, to the local Leadbeaters Possum population wiped out by the Black Saturday bushfires, and at least three other rodent species facing a "very high chance of extinction" in the next few years.

In her press release the Environment Minister also indicated the Spectacled flying-fox is being moved from 'vulnerable' to'endangered'. Image: AAP

Biodiversity Convenor at Doctors For the Environment Australia, Dr Dimity Williams said Australia needs to act quickly if it wants to stop this threatening rate.

"Climate change is the greatest threat to humans this century and one of the ways it harms us is through biodiversity loss," Williams told 10 daily.

"Climate change threatens biodiversity by increasing the frequency and severity of severe weather events," Williams explained, adding that this can include heat waves, cyclones and flooding.

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Williams said climate change and extensive habitat loss are both major factors which may have led to Australia becoming the leader in endangered rate, using the near complete loss of old growth forests in Victoria as an example.

"The areas that are left are very small and they are vulnerable now because of increased severe weather events," Williams explained.

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She said that while many people would question why the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy should matter to any one individual, the answer lies in humankind's reliance on all natural systems for health.

From ecosystems that clean water, air and provide food, to the medicines and anti-venom that come from plants and animals, human rely on all sorts of ecosystems to continue functioning.

"We just don’t know which of these species are going to hold the potential cure for cancer or the potential to combat antibiotic resistance".

The Wilderness Society is part of a growing call for a complete re-write of nature laws in Australia.

Earlier this week the President of World Wildlife Fund International wrote an open letter to Australia’s political leaders calling for immediate action to halt biodiversity loss through stronger legislation.

"The world is watching to see how Australia will respond to koalas being driven towards extinction due to excess tree clearing, mass fish deaths in the Murray-Darling Basin due to excess water extraction, and coral bleaching and polluted farm run-off pushing the Great Barrier Reef towards extinction,” Pavan Sukhdev said.

The Bramble Cay melomy was considered "remarkable" -- it was the most isolated Australian mammal and believed to be the Great Barrier Reef's only endemic mammal species.

Although at most there were only ever a few hundred of the creature scurrying through their land, experts now only hope the species will not have died in vain.

Featured Image: Queensland Environmental Protection Agency 

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au