5 Animals Once Thought Extinct

Although miraculously rediscovered, these creatures are still in danger.

Posted Nov 24, 2020

Lazarus species are animals thought to be extinct that are subsequently rediscovered. Although often considered a reprieve by Mother Nature from the dark realities of conservation, the limelight that these animals endure can be a double-edged sword, and either generate financial and political support for the species or attract bad actors ready to exploit them.

In a study published in PLOS Biology, Franck Courchamp and colleagues argued that “the human predisposition to place exaggerated value on rarity fuels disproportionate exploitation of rare species, rendering them even rarer and thus more desirable, ultimately leading them into an extinction vortex.”

Using mathematical modeling, the investigators demonstrated that whereas a common species of lizard may sell for under 100 euros, an overexploited (rare) species could sell for around 300 euros. Similarly, whereas a common snake may sell for about 100 euros, an overexploited species could sell for around 400 euros.

Lazarus species are the rarest of them all, and one could infer that they would fetch a very high price on the black market. Let’s take a closer look at 5 Lazarus species, and how to curb their bona fide extinction.

Examples

Here are a handful of species that defied all odds and returned from the dead.

Night parrot. Sightings of the night parrots—a pudgy, ground-dwelling budgie native to Australia—stopped in 1912. But after a 15-year search, this bird was photographed alive in 2013.

Cuban solenodon. Due to habitat destruction, this shrewesque insectivore was last seen in 1998 before being rediscovered in 2012 by a team of Japanese and Cuban researchers. Fun fact: The Cuban solenodon is one of only a few poisonous mammals.

Sumatran rhinoceros. Sumatran rhinos are the smallest of all living rhinoceroses, and the only Asian variety with two horns. Once considered extinct, the Sumatran rhino was found anew in 2013 on the neighboring island of Borneo. (Sumatran rhinos are also called Bornean rhinos.) Fun fact: This rhino is covered in long hair, making it the closest living relative of woolly rhinos.

Terror skink. This lizard was seen only once on New Caledonia in the South Pacific in 1876. After this solitary sighting, experts thought the skink was extinct, only to find it on an uninhabited islet in 2003. Fun fact: The terror skink’s long, curved teeth help cement its status as an apex predator.

Huila stubfoot toad. This speckled black amphibian, which is native to the highlands of Colombia, was last seen in 1995. Experts thought it fell prey to the chytrid fungus, which decimated amphibian populations globally. Fortunately, this toad was rediscovered in 2006.

 NYPL Digital Collections/Public Domain
Illustration of the Sumatran rhinoceros circa 1894.
Source: NYPL Digital Collections/Public Domain

Intervention

Animals can go extinct for a variety of reasons, including collection by hobbyists, trophy hunting, luxury food consumption, trade in exotic pets, use as traditional medicine, and encroachment due to ecotourism.

In an article published in Biological Conservation, Erik Meijaard and Vincent Nijman suggested that the best way to keep a Lazarus species safe may be keeping it secret. They based this hypothesis on their study of Sumatran rhinos.

“When, without publicity, costs are expected to remain relatively constant over time, or when publicity increases the risk significantly relatively to benefits, secrecy-based strategies should be favoured to develop ways that maximize the likelihood of benefits exceeding costs,” they wrote. “For Kalimantan’s [Sumatran] rhinos the choice to publicize-and-protect has been made, closing the door for a strategy based on secrecy, and making effective conservation solutions now all the more urgent.”

In other words, a cost-benefit analysis of secrecy-based strategies should be undertaken, with the understanding that both of these variables are moderated by publicity.