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Animals that have Risen from the Dead

Many animals have come and gone in the existence of life on Earth. In fact, about 99% of all life that has ever existed is now extinct. To be extinct means that there are no longer any living members of the species. But sometimes, some animals rise from the dead and reveal that they are not gone after all. But contrary to the title, these animals are not actually coming back from the dead, but just revealing to us that they never left. But that doesn’t mean they are not in danger of disappearing. These lazarus animals can be found in the oceans, on land, and in the air. So who are some of these animals who have risen from the dead? Let’s get into it!

The Coelacanth is a large fish that was thought to have been extinct for 65 million years along with the dinosaurs. These fish grow to about 6.5ft (1.8m) long and 200lbs (90kg). What's interesting about these fish is that they are in a group of fish called lobed finned fish. This means that their fins are attached to pelvic and pectoral bones, allowing them to walk along the seafloor. This was an early step in the evolution of terrestrial animals like salamanders and other amphibians, and eventually further terrestrial life. The Coelacanth was rediscovered after 65 million years in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. Coelacanths were once very diverse but now there are only two known living species.

The next Lazarus animal is a giant tortoise named Fernanda. When Fernanda was discovered in 2019 on the Galapagos Islands, it was a mystery as to what species she belonged to. There are 13 species of Galapagos Giant Tortoises, one of which was thought to have been extinct since it was last recorded in 1906. In fact, the original specimen from 1906 was the only one found and it was thought that the tortoise was brought there by sailors or storms. Hurricanes can wash tortoises out to sea, where they can float to islands like the Galapagos. This separation allows for evolution to differentiate these 13 new species over time. To solve the mystery of Fernanda’s identity, her DNA was compared to all 13 other species, including from the 1906 sample from the assumed extinct species. To the researchers' surprise, they found that her DNA most closely matched the extinct species. But this discovery leads to more questions, including, are there more?

Image Credit: Steve Murphy

The Australian Night Parrot was discovered in the outback in 1845, and the last individual was recorded just 67 years later in 1912. From then on it was considered to be extinct until 2013, when video and photo evidence was captured of them in the wild. They are difficult to find because not only are they nocturnal birds that hide down in the rocks and brush, but there also aren’t many of them left. Researchers estimate there are fewer than 250 total birds, some saying even as low as 20 individuals. Possible hypotheses for their population decline are due to feral cats and impact from unmanaged wildfires. News of this rediscovery and revival of this “extinct” species sparked global excitement and curiosity so their exact location is kept a secret to protect the remaining members of this fragile species.

There are even animals that have risen from the dead more than once. It is estimated that in the 1800s, there were between 500,000 and 1 million Black Footed Ferrets roaming across the center of the United States. By the 1950s, these ferrets were presumed to be extinct due to changes in the habitat for agriculture and its effects on prairie dogs who are their preferred prey. In 1964, a small population was discovered in South Dakota, some of whom were captured for a captive breeding program that was unfortunately unsuccessful. When the wild population died in 1974 and the last captive individual died in 1979, the species was labeled extinct for a second time. But then in 1981, these ferrets were rediscovered again in Wyoming, which launched the more successful Black Footed Ferret Recovery program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is still working today to build back their population. Today there are an estimated 370 individuals throughout known populations in Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, Arizona, and Kansas. But scientists believe that 3000 individuals are needed to successfully recover the species that is still under threat.

99.9% of all life that has ever existed on Earth is not extinct. But every so often, species defy their presumed death and are rediscovered, even after millions of years. Prehistoric fish still swim in our oceans, unique reptiles defy death, elusive birds reveal they’re still with us, and small rodents prove us wrong twice. Many of these Lazarus animal populations are critically threatened because of human activity, so it is important to reflect upon the impacts our actions have on these animals fighting for life. Nature is filled with surprises and the will to live can allow even the most threatened species to continue to exist with us.




Image Credit: Fraser, Michael D.; Henderson, Bruce A.S.; Carstens, Pieter B.; Fraser, Alan D.; Henderson, Benjamin S.; Dukes, Marc D.; Bruton, Michael N. (26 March 2020). "Live coelacanth discovered off the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa". South African Journal of Science. 116 (3/4 March/April 2020). doi:10.17159/sajs.2020/7806 © 2020. The Author(s). Published under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Fantastic Giant Tortoise

Australian Night Parrot

Illustration by Elizabeth Gould in 1890

Black Footed Ferret

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