Lazarus species – back from the dead

Monito del Monte, a small arborial marsupial thought to be extinct. Image by  José Luis Bartheld from Valdivia, Chile, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Monito del Monte, a small arborial marsupial thought to be extinct. Image by José Luis Bartheld from Valdivia, Chile, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

The number of species on the planet has been estimated at over 8 million, but there are a lot of species that haven’t yet been found or properly identified.

There are also a few species that were thought extinct, but have been found alive: these are known as Lazarus species. The elusive Australian night parrot that I posted about last week is one of these, as is the Lord Howe Island tree lobster I wrote about earlier this year.

And while it’s exciting to discover that animals previously thought extinct were still walking around (or flying, or swimming, or crawling, or whatever their means of locomotion), there’s still a rather tragic note to many of these sightings, as their rarity makes plain that they’re not likely to last long. This is usually because of human impact on their habitat, as for instance in the case of the Miller’s grizzled langur, a shy monkey species that was thought to have been driven into extinction by fires and illegal logging in its habitat of the Kutai National Park in Borneo.

Still, there’s an inevitable thrill about knowing that a creature that was once thought extinct is not, and that thrill has to be biggest when it’s something like the coelocanth. This large, multi-finned fish were thought to have died out about 65 million years ago near the end of the Cretaceous period, until one was found off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. Surprisingly, or not, these fish are still remarkably similar to the fossils found from around 40 million years ago, making the coelecanth, like the slime-producing hagfish, a successful survivor for all that time. It is now endangered, however, largely by accident: it turns up as bycatch in deep-sea trawling, and can’t even be eaten as the flesh exudes oils that give it a foul taste.

It would be a shame if this creature were to survive almost unchanged for 40 million years, only to fall prey to industrial over-fishing.

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7 Responses to Lazarus species – back from the dead

  1. Wildlife TV says:

    Even though all Lazarus species give me an amazing sense of hope for the future none gets close to the coelocanth.
    It is mind blowing to know that a species thought to have been wiped out 65 million years ago is still around and fighting for survival.

    ~Sofia.

    • Sam Hardman says:

      The coelacanth is amazing animal for sure but it’s not actually the same species as those from 65 million years ago, it would be incredible for a single species to remain unchanged for that long. The modern day coelacanth does belong to the Coelacanthiformes, the same order as many prehistoric and extinct species.

      • Alison Jobling says:

        Thanks for the correction, Sam – I think I got a bit carried away in my enthusiasm. 🙂

    • Alison Jobling says:

      Thanks, Sofia, although as Sam Hardman points out below, the coelocanths alive now are not precisely the same as those from 65 million years ago.

      But if you think 65 million is a long time, what about the hagfish? That’s been around for about 300 million, and still going strong in very much the same form (see my previous blog post here). Seems that slime and the ability to tie yourself in knots confer great survival advantages. 😉

  2. pipmarks says:

    Hi Alison
    This post made me think of another post I read recently about orange roughy and the risks posed by publishing maps of the sea floor (and likely breeding grounds etc). I wonder if these species that have managed to elude us for so long might be best left undiscovered and the depths uncharted? http://quillscratchings.com/2013/08/29/fish-and-friends/
    Pip

  3. Pingback: If you can believe in bigfoot, then why not drop bears? « Pip Marks

  4. Pingback: Zombies! …exploring taxonomy. | Wildlife TV

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