11 Living Species That Were Once Thought to Be Extinct

They're Not All Out of Danger, But They're Still Here

A Chacoan peccary walking.

Michael Fraley / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Lazarus taxon may sound like a magical spell from a blockbuster movie, but it's actually a phrase used to describe species that were once believed extinct and have suddenly turned up alive. On the following slides, you'll discover 11 of the most famous plants and animals that, from the human perspective, have come back from the dead, ranging from the familiar coelacanth to the cute Laotian rock rat.

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Majorcan Midwife Toad

A Majorcian midwife toad on a rock.

 Simon J. Tonge / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

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 seeing a fossilized 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 fewer than 1,500 breeding pairs in the wild — the result of centuries of predation by non-native wildlife introduced onto this small island by European settlers. The Majorcan midwife toad is listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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Chacoan Peccary

A Chacoan peccary sniffs the ground for food.

David Pape / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

During the later Cenozoic Era, herds of Platygonus — 100-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 (Catagonus wagneri) decades later in the 1970s. Ironically enough, the indigenous people of the Chaco region were long aware of this animal, and it took much longer for Western science to catch up. The chacoan peccary is listed as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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Nightcap Oak

A close-up of the "critically endangered" green leaves of the Nightcap oak
A close-up of the "critically endangered" green leaves of the Nightcap oak. Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 2000, the Nightcap oak isn't technically a tree, but a flowering plant — and its entire wild population consists of 125 fully grown trees and some saplings 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 15 million years ago, at a time when much of the southern continent was covered by tropical rainforests. 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. The Nightcap oak is listed as "critically endangered" by the Australian government, meaning there is a very high risk of it becoming extinct in the wild.

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Laotian Rock Rat

A furry gray Laotian rock rat chews on a leaf
Wikimedia Commons

If you happened to be a specialist, it would only take one look at the Laotian rock rat (Laonastes aenigmamus) 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 Diatomyidae, that supposedly went extinct over 10 million years ago. Scientists may have been surprised – but the indigenous tribes of Laos, near where this rodent was discovered, weren't: Apparently, the Laotian rock rat has figured on local menus for decades, the first identified specimens being offered for sale in a meat market. The species is not considered endangered and is listed as "least concern" by the IUCN.

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Metasequoia

Metasequoias in fall.

TPG / Getty Images

The first redwood trees evolved during the later Mesozoic Era, and their leaves were undoubtedly eaten by titanosaur dinosaurs. Today, there are three identified redwood genera: Sequoia (coast redwood), Sequoiadendron (giant sequoia), and Metasequoia (dawn redwood). The dawn redwood was 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 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. The IUCN lists the dawn redwood as "endangered."

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Terror Skink

A curious carnivorous terror skink lizard
The terror skink lizard is listed as "endangered" by the IUCN. 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 funnily named terror skink. A fossil specimen of this 20-inch-long lizard was unearthed in 1867 on a small island off the coast of New Calendonia in the Pacific Ocean. Over a century later in the early 1990s, a living specimen was discovered by a French museum expedition. The terror skink (Phoboscincus bocourti) comes by its name because it's more of a devoted meat-eater than other skinks, and to that end, it's equipped with long, sharp, curved teeth perfect for snagging wriggly prey. The terror skink is listed as "endangered" by the IUCN.

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Gracilidris

A close-up of a Gracilidris ant specimen.

April Nobile / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ants clock in at over 10,000 different species, so you'd think naturalists would be forgiven if they somehow overlooked the existence of an ant. That was just the case in 2006 when, after being thought extinct for over 15 million years, populations of the ant genus Gracilidris were discovered throughout South America. Before then, the only fossil specimen known was a single ant encased in amber.

Before you write off those ant enthusiasts' powers of observation, there's a good reason Gracilidris evaded the radar for so long. This ant only ventures out at night, and it lives in small colonies buried deep in the soil; that's a tall order to fill when it comes to being noticed by humans. The living species, Gracilidris pombero, is not listed by the IUCN.

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Coelacanth

A coelacanth underwater in the dark.

Bruce Henderson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The most famous Lazarus taxon on this list was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago. It's the coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish of the type that gave rise to the first tetrapods. Thought to be a victim of the same meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs, its story changed when a living coelacanth was caught off the coast of South Africa in 1938, followed by a second species near Indonesia in 1998. For such an elusive ocean dweller, the coelacanth is no small fry —captured specimens measure about six feet from head to tail and weigh in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. The two living species of coelacanth are the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) and the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis). The species are listed as "critically endangered" and "vulnerable" by the IUCN, respectively.

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Monito del Monte

The monito del monte (little mountain monkey) rodent clutches a tropical plant.

José Luis Bartheld / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Unlike the other plants and animals on this list, the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) wasn't suddenly discovered after being prematurely relegated to extinction. It was known for thousands of years by the indigenous peoples of South America, and only fully 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. The monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) is listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN.

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Monoplacophoran Mollusks

A monoplacophoran mollusk with its ringed shell
A monoplacophoran mollusk is a deep sea dweller. 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, almost 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.

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Mountain Pygmy Possum

A mountain pygmy possum in some straw.

John Englart / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

There are all sorts of tiny, peculiar-looking marsupials in Australia. Many went extinct in historical times, and some of the others are are barely holding on today. When its fossilized remains were discovered in 1895, the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) was eulogized as another vanished marsupial. Suddenly, in 1966, a living individual was encountered in, of all places, a ski resort. Since then, naturalists have identified three separate populations of this tiny, mouselike marsupial, all of them off the coast of southern Australia. Having fallen victim to human encroachment and climate change, there may only be as few as 100 individuals left, which makes the species being listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN sadly unsurprising.