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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Loose Lips Alert: First Mammal to Go Extinct From Global Warming?

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 9, 2008

What’s the handsome mammal with plush white fur that is most threatened by global warming?  If you’re thinking of Alaska’s polar bear, think tropical Queensland Australia instead.

The lemuroid ring-tailed possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides) already appears to may have vanished from its  narrow 1200-square-mile habitat in two mountaintop cloudforests there.  These house cat-size marsupials, which come in both white and brown varieties, live at the top of old growth forests.  They’re active only at night. So they’ve never been particularly easy to see.  But researchers working with spotlights have not been able to locate one since 2005.

“It is not looking good,” researcher Steve Williams told the Brisbane Courier-Mail  [N.B.  He says now this was an off-hand remark to a reporter, not an official assessment.  See follow-up below.]  “If they have died out it would be first example of something that has gone extinct purely because of global warming.”  He’s planning another effort early next year to locate animals in the Carbine range three hours north of Cairns.  The possums, which have small gliding membranes and use their prehensile tails as rudders when soaring from tree to tree, have never been kept in captivity.  

According to Williams, director of the Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change at James Cook University,  they  depend on the moisture in cool, high-altitude cloud forests and can’t maintain their body temperature in extreme heat,  “It only takes four or five hours of temperatures above 30C (86F) to kill this highly vulnerable species,” he said, adding that record high temperatures in the summer of 2005 could have caused a massive die-off.

According to the Courier-Mail, “Scientists believe some frog, bug and insects species have also been killed off by climate change. But this would be the first known loss of a mammal and the most significant since the extinction of the Dodo and the Tasmanian Tiger.”

Postscript (6:40 a.m.):  I have some reservations about this potentially premature death notice.  The Courier-Mail says researchers have put in 20 hours of intensive searching so far.  That doesn’t sound like enough to me.  Even so, it’s startling to see the comments from the newspaper’s readers, who seem to be notably dunderheaded:  “What’s a bet these scientists are looking for funding. What better way to get it than to blame climate change. Maybe we should shoot the scientists. Think of all the carbon dioxide we could save.”  And:  “I’d suggest all ppl concerned with the so called ‘global warming/climate change’ read Michael Crichton’s book: ‘State of Fear’. He is the author of ‘Jurassic Park’ btw…..”  Plus:  “And are these scientists the same ones that recomended the introduction of cane toads? Trust me, I am a scientist.”

And here’s the follow-up from Williams responding to my email (7 p.m.): “I am afraid that the only people even mentioning extinction are newspaper editors. They always want it dramatic. All that we reported was that we can show a very statistically significant drop in detectability, that is none observed over 20 transects when we used to see them on almost every transect. We have got good data on the cumulative heat effect during that summer (twice as high as any recorded year previously) and we know from pysiological studies that the possum is very sensitive to this heat. All we have said is that it has undergone a serious population decline and that so far we cant find any. I seriously doubt that it is completely extinct in those mountain ranges but it is possible. The species also occurs in a separate population further to the south that seems to have a much wider tolerance to temperature and no white individuals.”

Further Reading:

Humfleet, J. and P. Myers. 2006. “Hemibelideus lemuroides” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 09, 2008 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Hemibelideus_lemuroides.html.

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