This article is <1000 words, about a 3 minute read.
The Bramble Cay melomy, a small rodent-like mammal that made its home on a low-lying coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef, was recently declared extinct*. Scientists say that the melomy is probably the first mammal to become extinct solely due to climate changed caused by human actions.
I have never seen a melomy. Have you? If not, don’t worry. You can see it in a photo, above.
You would probably agree that Bramble Cay melomys will never attain pin-up status. They may be cute but they are not sexy. Like wolves.
Or polar bears.
There were no campaigns to save the melomy. In terms of the ways we as humans attribute value to animals, it is just not that important.
The Bramble Cay melomy was small – it could easily sit in your hand – and most people have probably never heard of it. I hadn’t heard of it either, until it became extinct. I feel a bit ashamed of this, but you can’t expect yourself to know every animal on earth. Also, I don’t like rote learning. In any case, that’s not important.
It seems the Bramble Cay melomy didn’t play a pivotal role in the food chain. It was kind of inconsequential. Their entire population lived on an island no bigger than two football fields and no higher than a rugby goal post (that’s 3m or about 10ft). It’s not like krill are suddenly extinct. Or bees. Melomys are not that important.
* And they mightn’t even be extinct. If you read the scientific reports you will discover that although the Bramble Cay melomy has been declared extinct, some scientists believe they may have floated to Bramble Cay on small rafts from Papua New Guinea, about 50km away. It’s possible that close relatives of the melomy still survive in PNG, and we won’t know for sure until a thorough survey is completed. But really, that is not important either.
Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy is that big a deal.
There is no rational reason to care that this small mammal species living on an isolated island few people ever visit is now gone forever.
So why am I so damn upset?
The answer is not forthcoming. Which is frustrating. So I am doing the thing humans do: examining my emotions and trying to validate them. Trying to make them reasonable by couching them in rational concepts and words. Talking to myself.
Maybe I’m upset because concerned local conservationists came so close to saving the melomy with a captive breeding program, but fell just short. It sounds like bureaucracy got in the way. That’s kind of upsetting.
Maybe it’s because of the image Jeremy Hance created in his article, of the last Bramble Cay melomy clinging desperately to its home as it’s inundated once more due to rising sea levels and intensifying tempests. That same melomy being swept off its tiny, eroded refuge into the seething ocean during a storm.
Or maybe I’m upset because deep down, I believe things that I can’t account for rationally. Things that, if I accept, would require me to make such radical changes to the way I live that they’re unimaginable.
Like: animals shouldn’t risk extinction for humans to live (but it’s the way of the world).
Or: species diversity matters. Intrinsically. Period. Without logic or justification. (But why?) Maybe because of all the planets and stars and masses of gas circulating in the universe, ours is the only one we know of that supports life as we know it. And such a magnificent medley of life. It’s worth something beyond any quantifiable value ascribed by humans.
The Bramble Cay melomy is worth something, intrinsically. And its loss is important. Period.
Sometimes consolation is found in the most unexpected places.
Not long ago I read The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. If you sympathise with her analysis, we are already well on our way into the sixth global mass extinction. The Bramble Cay melomy may be the first mammal extinction attributed to anthropogenic climate change, but it’s definitely not the first caused by human choices. Hundreds of species have suffered extinction as a result of habitat destruction, unsustainable hunting, introduced predators and other environmental changes instigated by humans.
Life is always in flux, but right now we are on a downswing, and at some point in the future, life on earth may be almost obliterated for the sixth time.
It sounds catastrophic but in some ways her book is a calming salve. Geological time offers the consolation of a broader perspective, if nothing else. Looking at the current extinction in the context of so many that came before, we can relax a little. This is a process much bigger than any of us.
But relaxation doesn’t have to mean capitulation or resignation. It can also mean conservation and consultation, even (respectful) confrontation.
I am heartened by groups of conservationists working to protect critically endangered species. And all the people dedicating their lives to campaigning for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, the eradication of microplastics or limiting the effects of ocean acidification. Even if they are fighting a losing battle.
There are good things happening out there. And this stuff matters. Intrisincally. Period.
* Last seen alive in 2009. You can read the details in this article by Michael Slezak in The Guardian. Theres also an informative article in Australian Geographic here.