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Start Lazarus Animals: Five Extinct Species that Have Been Resurrected
22 January 2018

Lazarus Animals: Five Extinct Species that Have Been Resurrected

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Recently it has been confirmed that there are still living specimens of Lord Howe Island stick insects, considered extinct since the 1930s. It is the latest example of so-called Lazarus animals: species long since disappeared that have surprisingly come back from the “dead” after being rediscovered. This giant stick insect is not the only such example, nor the first, nor the most celebrated case. This photo gallery presents some of the most remarkable resurrections.

Lord Howe Island stick insect

By 1930 it was assumed that this stick insect had been exterminated. Credit: Granitethighs

The Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis) was discovered in the nineteenth century when the island that gives it its name, located in the Tasman Sea some 600 kilometres off the east coast of Australia, became a whaling settlement. Almost immediately, rats from the whaling ships reached the mainland and began to decimate the population of this imposing phasmid, some 15 centimetres long and weighing 25 grams.

By 1930 it was assumed that this stick insect had been exterminated. However, in 1964 some climbers found the corpse of a presumed specimen on Ball’s Pyramid, a steep island 23 kilometres from Lord Howe Island. In 2001, an expedition managed to locate 24 live specimens.

Two breeding pairs were transferred to the Melbourne Zoo, where by 2012 there were already 9,000 descendants ready for reintroduction onto the island, once it was confirmed that the Dryococelus from the islet was the same species as Lord Howe’s. This was recently verified by comparing the genetic material of the new specimens with that of the specimens collected by nineteenth-century naturalists and present in museum collections.

Coelacanth

In 1938, the curator of the Museum of Natural History of South Africa discovered unusually fresh specimens of coelacanth among the catches of a local fisherman. Credit: BrokenSphere

From the existing fossil record, the coelacanths were considered a prehistoric order of bony fish. They were situated on an extinct lateral branch of the vertebrate lineage—close, though separate, which led to the common ancestor of all tetrapods, including humans—and would have inhabited the seas of the planet during the Cretaceous, before disappearing 65 million years ago during the great extinction that finished off the dinosaurs.

But in 1938, the curator of the Museum of Natural History of South Africa, Marjorie Courtneay Latimer, discovered unusually fresh specimens of coelacanth among the catches of a local fisherman. The species was named Latimeria chalumnae, and although it was a different genus from the existing fossils, it was part of the order of the coelacanths.

But more surprises were to come. In 1997, new specimens were caught off the coast of Sulawesi, in Indonesian waters, far from the Indian Ocean and the Comoros Islands where the South African fish had been caught. The genetic analysis found that they were two different subspecies that would have split and differentiated millions of years ago. Thus there are currently two varieties of this living fossil: the initial one, from the western Indian Ocean, and the more recent Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis).

Petrel of Bermudas

Around 1620, the Bermuda petrel was considered extinct and it retained this status until 1951. Credit: n88n88

There was a time when the Bermuda petrel or cahow (Pterodroma cahow) was so abundant on this Atlantic island that the first European navigators who reached it at the end of the sixteenth century called it an island of demons and shunned it for the fear that the sound of the mating calls of these seabirds inspired in the sailors. However, they soon discovered that the creatures responsible were actually a potential food source, easy to hunt and their delicious eggs were within reach as the birds nested at ground level.

The domestic animals introduced onto the island by the explorers also discovered the birds, and not long afterwards, around 1620, the Bermuda petrel was considered extinct. It retained this status until 1951, when a small colony comprising 18 breeding pairs was rediscovered on 4 neighbouring rocky islets barely one hectare in total.

Since then, efforts to recover the petrel constitute an ode to survival. They have had to overcome everything from hurricanes and tsunamis, which ravaged the islets, to light pollution from a NASA base that for years interfered with nocturnal mating rituals. Despite this, the population of petrels has increased from 18 to more than 90 breeding pairs in three generations.

Almiquí

It is believed that a tiny population of almiquís survives in the eastern region of Cuba. Credit: Gerardo Begué Quiala

The Cuban solenodon or almiquí in Spanish (Solenodon cubanus) is a small and primitive mammal characterized by an elongated snout like a proboscis or a trunk and is known for producing toxic saliva, something very unusual in mammals. With its venom, it can kill lizards, frogs, small birds, or even rodents.

According to the fossil record, scientists believe that species of the genus Solenodon inhabited much of the Americas about 30 million years ago. In terms of the almiquí, endemic to Cuba, it is thought that in the pre-Columbian era it still populated the whole island, but with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and the introduction of rats and domestic animals that competed with it and/or preyed upon it, its numbers would have declined rapidly.

In 1861, the German naturalist Wilhelm Peters discovered the Cuban solenodon for science. From 1890 to 1970, no other specimens were identified, and just when scientists had resigned themselves to declaring it extinct, three new specimens were captured between 1974 and 1975. Then it promptly disappeared again. In 2003, when it was once again assumed to be extinct, a Cuban farmer caught a new example.

At present it is believed that a tiny population of almiquís survives in the eastern region of the island, in the most remote part of the Sierra de Cristal and the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.

 

Takahe

En la actualidad hay cerca de 300 ejemplares de takahe. Crédito: neil.dalphin

The history of the South Island takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) could have been the same as that of other birds of the New Zealand fauna, such as the extinct moas. It is believed that the ancestors of the takahē flew to New Zealand from Australia millions of years ago. Once installed in the new territory and in the absence of natural predators, they increased in size while losing their ability to fly.

This circumstance was about to impose its death sentence when the birds became an accessible and tasty food source when Polynesian explorers discovered the lands. Then in the nineteenth century European settlers arrived, bringing with them their “imported” animals: rats, cats, dogs, pigs, sheep, deer… This caused a drastic decline in their population and in 1898 the takahē was declared extinct.

However, as a result of some alleged sightings, an expedition to the Murchison Mountains was organized in 1948, leading to the rediscovery of the takahē in the vicinity of Lake Te Anau. Since then, efforts to recover the species have paid off and there are currently about 300 birds.

Miguel Barral

@migbarral

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