11 Living Species That Were Once Thought to Be Extinct

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

Lazarus taxon may sound like the title of a Michael Crichton thriller, but it's actually a phrase used to describe species that were once believed extinct and have suddenly turned up, living and breathing, in a remote corner of the world. On the following slides, you'll discover 11 of the most famous plants and animals that have literally and figuratively come back from the dead, ranging from the familiar coelacanth to the cute Laotian rock rat.

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The Majorcan Midwife Toad

A brown spotted Majorican midwife toad rests on a rock
The International Union for Conservation for Nature (IUCN) lists the Majorican midwife toad as "vulnerable". 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. The Majorcan midwife toad is listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation for Nature (IUCN).

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The Chacoan Peccary

A Chacoan peccary (wild pig with a thick coat of brown fur) sniffs the ground for food
The IUCN lists the Chacoan peccary as "endangered". 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 (Catagonus wagneri) decades later. 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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The 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 100 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. 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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The Laotian Rock Rat

A furry gray Loatian rock rat chews on a leaf
The Loatian rock rat is listed as "least concern" by the IUCN. Wikimedia Commons

If you happened to be a specialist, you'd need only 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 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. The species is not considered endangered and is listed as "least concern" by the IUCN.

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The Metasequoia

Pine needles from a <i>Metasequoia</i> tree
Pine needles from a Metasequoia tree. 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 (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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The 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 amusingly 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 1993, 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, equipped as it is with long, sharp, curved teeth specialized for snagging wriggly prey. The terror skink is listed as "endangered" by the IUCN.

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A close-up of a <i>Gracilidris</i> ant
A close-up of a Gracilidris ant. 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 Gracilidris 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 it lives in small colonies buried deep in the soil. The living species, Gracilidris pombero, is not listed by the IUCN.

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The Coelacanth

A mounted example of a gray-and-white speckled coelacanth fish
A mounted example of a coelacanth fish, which is listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN. 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. The two living species of coelacanth are the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) and the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis). Both species are listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN.

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The Monito del Monte

The monito del monte (little mountain monkey) rodent clutches a tropical plant
The monito del monte (little mountain monkey) rodent from South American is listed "near threatened" by the IUCN. Wikimedia Commons

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, 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. 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, 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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The Mountain Pygmy Possum

A mountain pygmy possum, a nocturnal marsupial from Australia gets a ride on someone's back
A mountain pygmy possum, a nocturnal marsupial from Australia, is listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN. 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 (Burramys parvus) 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. There may be as few as 100 individuals left, as the mountain pygmy possum is victimized by human encroachment and climate change. The species is listed as "critically endangered" by the IUCN.