It was presented as shocking evidence of the damage being done by climate change: a species driven to extinction because of a decline in rainfall in its only habitat. Now the “rediscovery” of a species of snail is prompting questions about the role played by the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific institution, in raising false alarm over an impact of climate change.
The snail was found alive last month on Aldabra in the Seychelles
Rhachistia aldabrae was found alive last month on Aldabra, a coral island in the Seychelles, seven years after a scientific paper in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters had declared it extinct and said climate change was to blame. The claim was cited in 2013 in a paper in another Royal Society journal, which suggested that this was the clearest example of man-made climate change causing an extinction.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN science advisory body, used the second paper as evidence in its major report this year on the impacts of rising emissions. It stated: “Future species extinctions are a high risk because the consequences of climate change are potentially severe, widespread and irreversible.”
However, the claim that the snail was extinct had been rebutted in 2007 by four senior scientists, including Clive Hambler, a lecturer in biology at the University of Oxford and a leading authority on Aldabra. They wrote to the editor of Biology Letters in 2007, saying the paper’s author, Justin Gerlach, had wrongly claimed that “exhaustive” searches had been made for the snail. They also said he had used the wrong method to assess its decline and had made an error that resulted in the reduction in rainfall being exaggerated.
In a rebuttal paper, they wrote: “The vast majority of the habitat is virtually inaccessible and has never been visited. It is unwise to declare this species extinct after a gap in known records of ten years. We predict ‘rediscovery’ when resources permit.”
The journal refused to publish the rebuttal, saying it had been “rejected following full peer review”. The journal sent Mr Hambler the reviews of the rebuttal by two anonymous academic referees, who had rejected the criticisms made of Mr Gerlach’s paper.
However, the Royal Society admitted this week, after questions from The Times, that the referees who had rejected the rebuttal were the same referees who had approved Mr Gerlach’s paper for publication. The society said it had since changed its policy on reviewing rebuttals.
After hearing that the snail had been found, Mr Hambler wrote to the journal this month asking it to retract Mr Gerlach’s paper and publish his rebuttal. “Your original (Gerlach) paper on a climate-induced extinction had errors… Yet it has come to be cited as one of the clearest examples of possible climate-induced global extinction,” he wrote. Speaking to The Times, he said: “Crying wolf over climate change in this way diverts attention from more pressing causes of extinction, such as the destruction of habitat and invasive species.”