For thousands of years, the Bramble Cay melomys, a small, mouse-like rodent, eked out a living on a tiny coral island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It was the reef’s only endemic mammal species, and survived on the few plants that grew on its island home.
But as climate change expedited sea level rise and increased storm surges that flooded the low-lying island, the Bramble Cay melomys and its food supply was severely threatened. In June, after years of fruitless searching, scientists announced that they could no longer find any trace of the rodent.
The melomys was posthumously bestowed the ignominious title of the first mammal to go extinct because of human-induced global warming. “Sadly,” WWF-Australia spokesperson Darren Grover told The New York Times, “it won’t be the last.”
Scientists say the planet is currently on the precipice of the sixth mass extinction, an event that could see the wiping out of at least 75 percent of the Earth’s species. The current extinction rate is at least 100 times higher than normal, according to a 2015 study. Humans have triggered an extinction episode “unparalleled for 65 million years,” the researchers said.
Habitat destruction, poaching and pollution have killed off many species, and as we hurtle toward a 2-degrees Celsius temperature rise, climate change is rapidly becoming another major threat.
“The climate is changing faster than it ever has in the entire history of many species, and heading towards a ‘new normal’ that is outside the conditions that species have become adapted to in their long evolutionary history,” co-author Anthony Barnosky, executive director of Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, told The Huffington Post this week. “They can’t move to new places, because humans now use 50 percent of the Earth’s land, and they can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with the changes.”
In the past 10 years alone, we know at least a dozen animals, including several mammals, birds and amphibians, have been driven to extinction by humans. And that number is likely a staggering underestimate.
“Only approximately 2 million species have been scientifically described, but the number of species on Earth is estimated at 15 million or more. So many species are unknown to us,” said Gerardo Ceballos, a veteran ecologist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and another of the study’s co-authors. “I think most species that are extinct will never be known to science.”
It can also often take years for scientists to confirm an extinction.
Conservationists often maintain a lingering hope that an animal presumed to be extinct could still be found alive, said Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. “It can take several years to tens of years of repeated surveying before we can say a species has gone,” he said.
Based on the work of the IUCN, as well as government reports and other research, HuffPost has compiled a list of 12 creatures that have almost certainly left us for good in the past decade: the Bramble Cay melomys, Pinta giant tortoise, Western black rhino, Vietnamese rhino, Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, South Island kokako, a Malaysian snail known as Plectostoma charasense, Barada Spring minnow, Christmas Island pipistrelle, Cryptic Treehunter, Ua Pou monarch and a mysterious springtail which has yet to be scientifically described.
Each of these animals was last spotted, or heard, alive in the past 10 years, and disappeared without a trace over the same period.
Bramble Cay Melomys
The Bramble Cay melomys
had numbered in the hundreds in the 1980s but by the 2000s, its population had plummeted to under a dozen. The rodent was last spotted in 2009, and according to Hilton-Taylor, “all attempts to find it since have failed.”
High tides and surging seawater, a result of rising temperatures, have been pinpointed as the cause of the melomys’ demise. The animal, Barnosky told The Guardian in June, is a “cogent example of how climate change provides the coup de grâce
to already critically endangered species.”
Australian scientists said they had hoped to prevent the extinction of the melomys by starting a captive breeding program for the animal.
By the time they launched a rescue mission to retrieve the creature, however, they discovered they were much too late.
“My colleagues and I were devastated,” Ian Gynther, a senior conservation officer in Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, told The Guardian.
Pinta Giant Tortoise
When Lonesome George died at the age of 100 in 2012, the world mourned
. Believed to be the last Pinta giant tortoise
on the planet, George, who’d lived in a research station on the Galapagos Islands, had become a poster animal for endangered species worldwide.
“It is a very sad story for all of us,” Christian Saa, a national park ranger, told The New York Times after the tortoise’s death.
“He was like a member of the family to me,” said Faust Llerena, the 74-year-old ranger who’d cared for George for decades. “To me, he was everything.”
The Galapagos Islands had once been home to a thriving population of giant tortoises. Hunting by sailors, pirates and merchantmen in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, however, decimated their numbers. More than 100,000 tortoises
are believed to have been killed over that period.
Today, an estimated 15,000 giant tortoises remain on the island, all of them considered endangered and strictly protected
by the Ecuadorian government.
Western Black Rhinoceros
At the turn of the 20th century, the four subspecies of black rhinoceros, numbering about a million
in all, thrived in the savannahs of Africa. Today, that number has plunged to about 5,000 — a figure that doesn’t include a single Western black rhino
, a subspecies now presumed extinct after last being sighted in 2006.
About 96 percent
of black rhinos were killed by poachers between 1970 and 1992, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The animals were — and continue to be — slaughtered for their horns, which are coveted in parts of Asia for their alleged healing qualities
(a claim unsupported by science). A South-western black rhino is pictured above.
Like the Western black rhinoceros, the Vietnamese rhino
was also hunted to extinction. The very last of the subspecies, a female, died in 2009 in the jungle in southwest Vietnam. Her skeleton was found a year later, her horn “crudely
” hacked off and a bullet lodged in a foreleg.
A poacher had used a semi-automatic weapon to shoot the rhino, conservationists later discovered. The animal had survived the shooting and had fled, injured, through the dense jungle. She eventually died — possibly months later — near a grove of towering bamboo. "The gunshot did kill the rhino," Ed Newcomer, a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent, told the BBC. "It just took a long time to do it."
Newcomer was part of the team that investigated the rhino’s death. Of visiting the site where the Vietnamese rhino breathed her last, ending the lineage of an entire subspecies, Newcomer described being “incredibly” moved.
“It hits you like a brick,” he said.
The Vietnamese rhino was a subspecies of the Javan rhino
, regarded as one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. Of the three subspecies of Javan rhino, only one — Rhinoceros sondaicus sondaicus —
still exists. Fewer than 60 individuals survive on the planet, all of them in Ujung Kulon National Park
in Java, Indonesia.
Rabbs' Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog
Atlanta Botanical Garden
In September, Toughie, the loneliest frog on Earth, died at the age of 12. He’s believed to have been the very last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog
on the planet, a Panamanian species known for being excellent climbers and gliders, with a most peculiar bird-like call
Conservationist Mark Mandica, who worked with the amphibian and whose young son named the frog
, said at the time that Toughie’s death served as a reminder of the many species that have been wiped out “before we even knew that they were there.”
Scientists first identified Toughie’s species in 2005 — the year a group of researchers went to central Panama in a race to collect live animals before a deadly chytrid fungus
consumed the area.
It’s believed the Rabbs’ tree frog population did not survive the “catastrophic” fungus, which has been linked to climate change
and poses a serious threat to amphibian populations worldwide. In Panama alone, the disease has led to the extinction of at least 30 frog species
. Like the Rabbs’ frog, several of the lost species were newly discovered.
After being rescued from Panama, Toughie was brought to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where he lived alone in a climate-controlled facility known as the Frog Pod until his death.
Toughie had been “a symbol of the extinction crisis
,” a National Geographic obituary mourning the frog’s death said.
South Island Kokako
An ancient bird once widespread in the forests of southern New Zealand, the South Island kokako
was driven to extinction by large-scale deforestation, ecosystem fragmentation and the introduction of non-native predators.
The bird was last spotted in 2007 and is presumed extinct. (Its close cousin, the North Island kokako, pictured here, is considered “at risk
” though its population has been recovering in recent years.)
A kind of New Zealand wattlebird, the South Island kokako had slate-gray feathers with brightly-colored wattles and black masks. According to Maori legend, the kokako gave Maui, the mythological hero, water as he battled the sun. The bird filled its wattles with water to help quench the hero’s thirst. As a reward, Maui stretched the kokako’s legs to make them long and slender, allowing the bird to leap through the forest with ease to catch food. (The kokako, notes New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, is not great at flying. Instead, the bird preferrs to use its powerful legs to run and jump
through the forest.)
Liew T/Schilthuizen M
is a genus of micro land snails that live in limestone outcrops in Southeast Asia. Several Plectostoma
species are threatened with extinction and at least two, including Plectostoma charasense,
have already been snuffed out (the related Plectostoma laidlawi
is pictured above). Plectostoma charasense
were endemic to two limestone hills in Pahang, Malaysia: They once lived on moist mosses and liverworts covering trunks and rocks.
Habitat destruction, however, ultimately drove the species to extinction. Extensive quarrying for cement destroyed one of the hills where the snails were found. The tropical forests surrounding the second hill were converted into a palm oil plantation.
"Exhaustive" searches for the snails in 2010 and 2011 turned up nothing, said the IUCN. The snail was last seen in 2007.
Barada Spring Minnow
Syria’s Barada Spring was once known for its copious amounts of cold and clear water
. It was also the home of a lone minnow, said to be the spring’s only endemic species.
But in the past decade, urbanization has posed a severe threat to both the spring and its sole inhabitant. In 2008, the water body was almost completely drained to meet the needs of a ballooning population, prompting a decline of at least 90 percent of the minnow population.
In 2014, the IUCN determined that the fish was likely extinct
. The Syrian War, the conservation group said, may have also contributed to the species’ demise.
Christmas Island Pipistrelle
For at least a million years, the tiny Christmas Island pipistrelle
had lived on the Australian territory whose name it bears. The micro-bat
, which weighed about 3 grams (lighter than a nickel), had long thrived on the island, feeding on insects and roosting in large groups in tree hollows and decaying vegetation.
But its numbers started to dwindle in the 1980s, and by 2006, the pipistrelle population had plunged to about 50. In the years that followed, this “decline continued at an alarming rate,” according to the IUCN. In 2009, only 20 remained.
The cause of the bats’ demise is not entirely clear, though several invasive, introduced species, including black rats and feral cats, have been pinpointed as possible culprits. The island’s crazy ants
could also have been part of the problem.
What is known, however, is that in 2009, scientists raised a red flag about the bats, warning
the Australian government that “without urgent intervention there is an extremely high risk that this species will go extinct in the near future.” They sought permission to capture the remaining bats for a captive breeding program.
Government officials hemmed and hawed
, initially rejecting the request. It took several months before the approval was granted.
Tragically, it was too little, too late. By the time the researchers returned to Christmas Island to search for the bats, they were only able to find a single animal.
On Aug. 27, 2009, that last remaining bat disappeared.
“Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations to future generations: the conservation of our natural heritage,” wrote
Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery following the pipistrelles’ extinction. “Australians need to take a look at ourselves.”
The pipistrelle had been Christmas Island’s only bat — one that consumed its body weight in insects every night. Scientists say its extinction could disrupt the ecological balance of the island.
Ua Pou Monarch
Like the Cryptic Treehunter, the Ua Pou Monarch
, a bird native to Ua Pou (pictured), an island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia, was not identified until this century. First recognized in 2004, the bird was last spotted in 2010.
Researchers have since attempted to find the bird but their searches have been fruitless.
Habitat destruction devastated the range of the Ua Pou Monarch, said the IUCN. Introduced species, like the black rat, likely also played a role in the bird’s demise.
Ceratophysella sp. nov. ‘HC’
The final creature on this list is the smallest, and the most mysterious too. Certaophysella sp. nov. ‘HC’
is a new, as-yet undescribed species of Hypogastruridae Collembola,
a kind of springtail (a tiny, insect-like omnivorous animal, pictured above).
It was first discovered by scientists in 2006 in a cave in the Hon Chong hills of Vietnam. The researchers had found a “healthy” population of the springtails at the time, but subsequent trips turned up no evidence of the creature.
The cave, scientists say, has been “heavily disturbed by tourism” in the years since the original discovery.
“For the conservation of the species, the regulation of the touristic activities and the restriction of tourism to pathways, would be crucial, and might allow the species to come back if it is still present in small cracks connected to the cave,” wrote the IUCN in its latest assessment.
As of 2016, however, the springtail was considered a “relict.”
Before It’s Too Late
From the smallest springtail to the largest rhinoceros, the loss of any species is a tragedy.
“All species are ecosystem engineers, which means that the way they modify the environment around them can foster new environments for other organisms to live in,” Mark Williams, a paleobiology professor at England’s University of Leicester, told HuffPost.
For certain “keystone” species, which play critical roles in their environments, an extinction could mean the collapse of entire ecosystems. There are also species that “belong to very ancient groups. [Losing those] would be one major component of the evolutionary story of life on Earth wiped out forever,” Williams said.
The loss of animal species can also affect humans. “We’re losing services that are valuable, even critical, to people,” Barnosky said. “For example, commonly used high blood-pressure medications were derived from a little-known and highly poisonous snake that lives in jungle environments, the fer-de-lance.”
Scientists have estimated that the biosphere ― all the parts of the world where life exists ― provides services to humans worth about $33 trillion a year. The benefits of conserving species outweigh the costs of doing so by a factor of 100, according to a 2002 study.
Ceballos says that species extinctions can also have profound knock-on effects ― potentially even threatening kind’s own survival.
“Imagine that you are in a room where the walls are made of bricks. If a brick is lost, the wall will not collapse, but will start to work less efficiently,” said Ceballos. “But if you continue to take bricks, the wall will eventually collapse. In environmental terms, [a brick is a species] and the collapse will be a collapse of environmental services and eventually the collapse of civilization.”
Humans could kill off two-thirds of all wildlife by 2020, according to an October WWF report. If we continue at the rate we’re going, “we are likely to be left with an impoverished biodiversity for several million years to come,” said Williams.
He stressed, however, that it is not to late to turn the tide. “We might be on the brink of a mass extinction, but we can still avoid it!” Williams said. “We haven’t lost the biodiversity yet. All is to play for.”
Humans would need to fundamentally change consumption habits and treatment of the planet in order to do so, scientists say, and there is little time to waste.
“When we’re going to start seeing impacts more locally ― your favorite lake dries up or your favorite species is no longer there ― maybe at that point you start thinking longer-term,” said Colby Loucks, senior director of WWF’s Wildlife Conservation Program, in an interview earlier this year. “But at some point the earth is going to say ‘enough.’ And that’s going to be catastrophic.”
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher