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.