The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain is often said to have quipped in 1897. Sometimes, it seems, news, rumor and, on occasion, even good old-fashioned research gets a little ahead of itself. Even in the case of extinction.
With the vast expanses and depths of seas and oceans the last great frontier of discovery, it’s not hard to see how more than a few species can go undetected for a year, or two, or 50 million or so.
We present a rundown of “living fossils”: five ex-fish whose demise, it turns out, may have been somewhat overstated.
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1. Smoothtooth Blacktip Shark (Carcharhinus leiodon)
Lurking unseen for decades in the depths of a museum in Vienna, a specimen discovered on a trip to Yemen in 1902 and donated by naturalist Wilhelm Hein was finally identified in 1985 as the only known example of Carcharhinus leiodon — the smoothtooth blacktip shark.
No living case having been identified in the wild during that time, it was assumed the creature was extinct. Until, that is, 2008 when members of the Shark Conservation Society discovered one in a Kuwait fish market.
Further foraging in such markets brought to light another 47 (unfortunately dead) examples of the once elusive shark. Still on the “Vulnerable” list, scientists have at least now been able to begin to piece together a better picture of how and where they eat, meet and reproduce.
2. Jurassic Shrimp (Neoglyphea neocaledonica)
The name of the Jurassic shrimp is no exaggeration. It’s one of a group of crustaceans that was happily thriving during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods — way back in the day, some 200 to 65 million years ago.
In fact, this particular creature was thought to have died out about 50 million years ago. Despite the long absence, however, in 2006, one was caught at a depth of between 1,200 and 1,600 feet by scientists investigating underwater volcanoes (or seamounts) in the Coral Sea off northeast Australia.
So far, sadly, this solitary 10-legged ambassador is the only Jurassic shrimp to be positively identified as such.
3. Pygmy Right Whale (Caperea marginata)
Once thought to have been extinct for 2 million years, the mysterious pygmy right whale is so elusive we know hardly anything about its history, behavior or life cycle. Rarely coming near the shore, it has also only been seen very occasionally out at sea in its natural habitat of the Southern oceans.
One thing we do know, though, (thanks to a carcass washed up on a New Zealand beach in 2002): Caperea marginata is not a right whale at all! A report in 2012 presented by the Royal Society following analysis of the whale’s DNA and unusual skull type show it to be the last branch of a family called cetotheres, the remainder of which have now long since disappeared.
Because of its unwillingness to show itself to humans, it is difficult to approximate accurate population numbers or methods of preservation. Considering our record, maybe staying right out of the way is the best thing it can do.
4. Black Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka kawamurae)
In 2011, a Japanese salmon was discovered by a local fisherman in a lake near Mount Fuji. Intrigued by its unusual appearance, the fisherman sent it to Sakana-kun (or “Mr. Fish”), a fish-obsessed Japanese TV personality.
He, recognizing the fish’s rarity, passed it on to Tetusji Nakabo, a professor of ichthyology at Kyoto University who finally identified the creature as a black kokanee, otherwise known as a kunimasu — a salmon believed to have been extinct for 70 years.
Scientists had thought the last kunimasu had died out in the 1940s after a hydroelectric dam project raised acidity levels in northern Japan’s Lake Tazawako, the fish’s only known habitat. A 1935 preservation that released kunimasu eggs into Lake Saiko was thought to have been unsuccessful.
Nakabo describes the reappearance of the salmon as “incredible, unbelievable.” The lake, the source of which is an underground spring in Mount Fuji, is now thought to be home to around 10,000 black kokanee — thanks in no small part to environmental protection plans put in place by the Japanese government.
5. Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae)
The coelacanth (that’s “SEEL-uh-kanth“) is probably the most famous of species back from the brink. Thought to have died out with the dinosaurs during the last great extinction, 65 million years ago, the coelacanth was one fish we’d never see again. And yet.
A museum curator from South Africa landed one on a local trawler in 1938. With its lobed fins that are half-limb that move alternately like the trotting action of a horse, its thick scales only seen on in the fossils of long lost species and its electrosensory rostral organ used to detect prey, the coelacanth looks like something from another world, let alone another time.
Despite being big enough — they grow up to 6.5 feet long and 198 pounds — and fearsome enough to look after themselves, the creature’s re-emergence into the land of the living may, like our other entries, be a temporary one. It’s estimated just a thousand remain in the wild.
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