12 Living Species That Were Once Thought to Be Extinct

01
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These Plants and Animals Have Literally Come Back From the Dead

Australia Reptile Park

"Lazarus Taxon": it sounds like the title of a Michael Crichton thriller, but it's actually a phrase used to describe species that were once believed to be long extinct, but have suddenly turned up, living and breathing, in a remote corner of the world. On the following slides, you'll discover the 12 most famous plants and animals that have literally and figuratively come back from the dead, ranging from the familiar (the coelacanth) to the creepy (the Laotian rock rat).

02
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The Majorcan Midwife Toad

Frogblog

It's not often that a living animal is discovered shortly after its own fossil. In 1977, a naturalist visiting the Mediterranean island of Majorca described a fossil toad, Baleaphryne muletensis; two years later, a small population of this amphibian, now called the Majorcan midwife toad, was discovered nearby. While the Majorcan midwife toad is still kicking, it can't exactly be described as thriving; there are believed to be less than 500 breeding pairs in the wild, the result of centuries of predation by non-native wildlife introduced onto this small island by European settlers.

03
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The Chacoan Peccary

Wikimedia Commons

During the later Cenozoic Era, herds of Platygonus--300-pound, plant-eating mammals closely related to pigs—blackened the plains of North America, vanishing toward the end of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. When the fossil of a closely related genus, Catagonus, was discovered in Argentina in 1930, it was assumed this animal had been extinct for thousands of years as well. Surprise: naturalists stumbled on a surviving population of Chacoan peccaries (genus Catagonus) decades later. Ironically enough, the indigenous people of the Chaco region were long aware of this animal; it took much longer for western science to catch up!

04
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The Nightcap Oak

Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 2000, the nightcap oak isn't technically a tree, but a flowering plant—and its entire population consists of 100 wild specimens nestled in the Nightcap Mountain range of southeastern Australia. What makes Eidothea hardeniana truly interesting is that it should be extinct: the genus Eidothea flourished in Australia 20 million years ago, at a time when much of the southern continent was covered by tropical rain forests. As the Australian continent slowly drifted south, and turned darker and colder, these flowering plants disappeared—but somehow, the nightcap oak continues to struggle on.

05
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The Laotian Rock Rat

Wikimedia Commons

If you happened to be a specialist, you'd need only one look at the Laotian Rock Rat to realize that it's different from every other rodent on earth. Since the announcement of its discovery in 2005, naturalists have speculated that the Laotian Rock Rat belongs to a family of rodents, the Diatomydae, that supposedly went extinct over 10 million years ago. Scientists may have been surprised, but not so the indigenous tribes of Laos near where this rodent was discovered: apparently, the Laotian Rock Rat has figured on local menus for decades, the first identified specimens being offered for sale in a meat market!

06
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The Metasequoia

Wikimedia Commons

The first redwood trees evolved during the later Mesozoic Era, and their leaves were undoubtedly feasted on by titanosaur dinosaurs. Today, there are three identified redwood genera: Sequoia (also known as the coast redwood), Sequoiadendron (also known as the giant sequoia), and Metasequoia (also known as the dawn redwood), which was once believed to be extinct for over 65 million years but was then rediscovered in China's Hubei province. Even though it's the smallest of all the redwoods, Metasequoia can still grow to heights of over 200 feet, which kind of makes you wonder why no one noticed it until 1944!

07
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The Terror Skink

Wikimedia Commons

Not all Lazarus taxa supposedly went extinct millions of years ago; some are unexpected survivors of lineages that presumably disappeared only centuries or decades before. A case study is the amusingly named terror skink, A fossil specimen of this 20-inch-long lizard was unearthed in 1867 on a small island in the Pacific Ocean; over a century later, in 1993, a living specimen was discovered by a French museum expedition. The terror skink comes by its name because it's more of a devoted meat-eater than other skinks, equipped as it is with long, sharp, curved teeth specialized for snagging wriggly prey.

08
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Gracilidris

Wikimedia Commons

You'd think naturalists might be forgiven if they somehow overlooked the existence of an ant; after all, there are over 10,000 ant species, and as you may have figured out for yourself, ants are very, very small. Until the discovery of various living populations in 2006, in South America, the ant genus Graclidris was believed to be extinct for over 15 million years (in fact, the only fossil specimen is a single individual encased in amber). There's a good reason Gracilidris evaded the radar for so long: this ant only ventures out at night, and lives in small colonies buried deep in the soil.

09
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The Coelacanth

Wikimedia Commons

The most famous "Lazarus taxon" on this list, the coelacanth—a lobe-finned fish of the type that gave rise to the first tetrapods—was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, a victim of the same meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs. That all changed when a living coelacanth was caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938, and a second species near Indonesia in 1998. Amazingly for such an elusive ocean dweller, the coelacanth is by no means a small fish—captured specimens measure about six feet from head to tail and weigh in the neighborhood of 200 pounds.

10
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The Monito del Monte

Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the other plants and animals on this list, the monito del monte wasn't suddenly discovered after being prematurely relegated to extinction; it was known for thousands of years by the indigenous peoples of South America, though only described by Europeans in 1894. This "little mountain monkey" is in fact a marsupial, and the last surviving member of the Microbiotheria, an order of mammals that largely went extinct in the middle Cenozoic Era. The monito del monte should be proud of its heritage: DNA analysis has shown that Cenozoic microbiotheres were ancestral to the kangaroos, koalas and wombats of Australia.

11
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Monoplacophoran Mollusks

ogena.net

Monoplacophorans may hold the record for the longest gap between the supposed extinction of a species and the discovery of living specimens: these "one-plated" mollusks are known by copious fossils dating to the Cambrian period, 500 million years ago, and were believed to be extinct until the discovery of living individuals in 1952. About 20 extant monoplacophoran species have been identified, all of them residing on the deep sea bottom, which explains why they evaded detection for so long. Since the monoplacophorans of the Paleozoic Era lay at the root of mollusk evolution, these living species have a lot to tell us about this invertebrate family.

12
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Schinderhannes bartelsi

Wikimedia Commons

Here's another twist on the Lazarus taxon theme: a type of animal that was thought to have gone extinct in the Cambrian period, yet has been discovered in sediments dating to the Devonian, 100 million years later. Schinderhannes bartelsi was a type of primitive crustacean known as an "anomolacarid," after the famous Cambrian genus Anomalocaris. Until the discovery of S. bartelsi's fossil in 2009, naturalists had considered anomalocarids a true "one-off" of evolution, weird enough to be described, along with the other Cambrian fauna of the Burgess Shale, in Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life; clearly, these invertebrates were better adapted than anyone suspected!

13
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The Mountain Pygmy Possum

Australia Reptile Park

There are all sorts of tiny, weird-looking marsupials in Australia, many of which have gone extinct in historical times, and some of which are barely holding on. When its fossilized remains were discovered in 1895, the mountain pygmy possum was eulogized as a vanished marsupial—and then a living individual was encountered in, of all places, a ski resort, in 1966. Since then, naturalists have identified three separate populations of this tiny, mouse-like marsupial, all of them off the coast of southern Australia. Today, there may be as few as 100 individuals left, as the mountain pygmy possum is victimized by human encroachment and climate change.