In paleontology, a Lazarus taxon is a taxon that disappears from the fossil record, only to appear again later. In conservation biology and ecology, it can refer to species or populations that were thought to be extinct and were rediscovered. With this in mind, a Lazarus creature is one that appeared to have gone extinct, only to reappear again unchanged. This can be an animal that was gone from the fossil record for millions of years or one that reemerges after being declared extinct. In no particular order, we present to you our favorite specimens that seemingly disappeared from existence, only to startle discoverers with their reappearance!
In 1932, Marjorie Courtenay Latimer was a curator of a small museum in East London, South Africa. On December 23rd, she visited a friend for his birthday – a local sea captain who had just returned with a fresh catch. She suddenly noticed something bizarre – something that she described as “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings.” She had amazingly and accidentally rediscovered the Coelacanth, a living fossil thought to have been in existence for 400 million years!
Scientists had thought this elusive fish had been extinct for 65 million years! It’s now known that coelacanths can grow up to 2 meters long, weigh 200lb, live up to 60 years and reside 700 meters below the surface! 60 years is pretty impressive, but it’s no match for the longest-living sea creatures. What also makes this rediscovered species so spectacular is that it has remained unchanged after millions of years. It’s classed a living fossil, which means that the current species is considered identical to its fossil record. Other examples of living fossils include crocodiles and the frilled shark. What’s more, this fish isn’t exactly fit for eating. The oils in its tissues give it a foul taste. Despite it being an unfavorable fish to dine on, it is in fact threatened by commercial fisheries. Deep-sea trawling is still a common and dangerous method of fishing that destroys ocean habitats and produces a lot of bycatch — pulling up creatures like the coelacanth.
Smoothtooth Blacktip Shark
The smoothtooth blacktip shark has smooth teeth and black-tipped fins. It was first discovered in Yemen back in 1902, but nobody actually got around to examining it and declaring it a new species until 1985. Of course scientists’ tardiness to document this specimen didn’t really matter too much since no other specimens were found again until 2008. Since then they have been seen multiple times, although they are rare and are classified as an endangered species. If you’re feeling some familiarity with this shark, it’s likely because they resemble their close relative – the blacktip reef shark. As with the coelacanth, this rediscovered species is threatened by longlining, gill nets, trawling, habitat destruction and being caught as bycatch. Thanks to human activity, these interesting sharks may well disappear once again.
The Neptune’s Cup looks like a plant, but it is in fact an animal that comes from the sponge phylum. Some scientists hypothesize that sponges did once have brains, but had more success by evolving without them. Their lack of brain isn’t what makes them special though. This unique sponge resembles a giant wine glass. At a meter wide and a meter tall with a giant stem, it’s one of the largest of all species of sponges. Some can even grow as large as 5 meters. The species was harvested and used for all sorts of purposes, including baby bathtubs. By the early 1900s, the entire species seemed to have vanished into extinction thanks to being overharvested by humans. But in 2011, a few specimens were rediscovered in Thailand and Singapore, and today’s conservationists are taking steps to get them to reproduce and help them make a comeback.
Short-Nosed Sea Snake
This venomous sea snake grows up to about 2 feet long and has small, pointed faces with jewel-like eyes and metallic-looking scales. This species was discovered in 1926 on the Ashmore Reef in Australia. In the early 2000s, it completely disappeared from the area. At the time they faced threats from trawling, oil spills, and water contamination, so it was widely accepted as an extinct species when they seemingly vanished from the islands. But in 2015, a breeding pair was rediscovered on Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. It’s unknown what caused them to move, but it’s great that they didn’t disappear from existence – just simply went into hiding! Today, these critters remain a critically endangered species.
Like the beer brand with the same name, the Black Kokanee once disappeared off the face of the planet. This species of Japanese salmon seemed to go extinct back in 1940, despite intense efforts to stop its disappearance. Unfortunately, a hydroelectric project made the lake they inhabited too acidic for them to survive. When the population began to diminish, conservationists tried to transport them to another lake, but the efforts failed. But then as if by magic the fish was rediscovered in 2010 after it somehow survived its unfortunate circumstances.
This is an unusual one. One can understand how a few fish could remain hidden for a while and be rediscovered, but it’s hard to believe how we could lose a creature the size of a bus. The huge Omura’s Whale wasn’t officially recognized until 2003 – the species was caught back in the mid-1970s, but at that time it was thought to be a pygmy Bryde’s whale. Now because it was never officially classified as extinct, there is some debate as to whether or not it is indeed a Lazarus creature. Although it was assumed extinct between 2003 and 2013 due to zero sightings during this time.
Rediscovered From Extinction…
So there you have it. Our list of marine creatures that seemed to disappear, only to be rediscovered after being assumed extinct. We love this kind of stuff that’s shrouded in mystery, like the crypto-creatures whose existence we were unsure of until they were finally discovered – the giant squid for example! So, if it’s possible for species to come back from assumed extinction, and for legendary creatures to confirm their reality, let’s hope that the megalodon is still out there, somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered..