A “Lazarus Taxon” is a group of living things that are assumed to be extinct, but then later discovered to exist either later in the fossil record or are unexpectedly found to be alive on the planet today. In a period where extinctions are occurring at a rapid rate, finding species that are elusive (such as the recently re-discovered Voeltzkow’s chameleon) presumed extinct is a particularly special treat.
So, on this Halloween, instead of excavating corpses, let’s celebrate in the resurrection of these formerly extinct species!
1. The Coelacanth
Quite possibly the best-known species to be absolved of its extinct status, the coelacanth was assumed to have perished along with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The skeletal structure of its fossilized lobed fins suggested that its species was a crucial juncture in the evolution four-limbed land animals (”tetrapods”). Then, in the 20th century two different living species of coelacanth were discovered. First, in 1938, the West Indian Ocean coelacanth was caught near South Africa. And then, in 1998 the Indonesian coelacanth was caught off the coast of – you guessed it! – Indonesia. It is surprising how cryptic these species are, given that they are nearly six feet long and weigh close to 200 pounds.
2. New Guinea Big-Eared Bat
In 2012, Australian researchers were studying the effects of logging on microbats in Papua New Guinea. They caught several bats spanning nine known species, and a single, unidentifiable female bat. It wasn’t until 2014 that Australian Museum researcher, Harry Parnaby, was able to determine that the specimen was a New Guinea Big-Eared Bat, a species that had only been observed once before in 1890. What set this bat apart from other species was the skin near its nostrils, the size of its ears and the curve of its nose — nuanced characteristics that would certainly require a bat aficionado to distinguish. Unfortunately, as logging continues in Papua New Guinea and the Big-Eared Bat’s habitat disappears, it may be difficult – if not impossible – to find another specimen and learn more about this species’ ecology.
3. Goblin Shark
The last species on this list, the Goblin Shark, might be the most mysterious of all! Very little is known about the goblin shark, which is thought to be related to an ancient group of sharks (the Mitsukurinidae). Dead ones have been caught on occasion, but there are only a handful of accounts of live sightings.
In January 2007, a strange-looking shark was caught in the net of some Japanese fishermen who had been targeting fish 500 feet below sea level in Tokyo Bay. Shortly after being caught and put on display, however, the shark perished. Then, seven years later, a goblin shark was caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Whereas the one caught in Japan was less than five feet long, the one from the Gulf was nearly 15 feet long and caught 2,000 feet below sea level. However, In order to prevent this specimen from meeting the same fate of its Japanese counterpart, the fishermen released it back into the ocean before returning to shore.