As climate change, habitat loss, and other factors put more and more animals at risk, we’ve become accustomed to hearing about species on—or past—the brink of extinction. But some canny creatures seem to have come back from the beyond. Enter the “Lazarus taxon,” a superstar team of roughly 350 species apparently raised from the dead like Lazarus from the tomb.
Some of these species are still so elusive we have no way of knowing whether to find their rediscovery optimistic or whether to prepare ourselves for another Lonely George (or Lonesome George). Others have made amazing comebacks. With awareness, critical care, and responsible tourism, more of these “living fossils” may truly live on. (Learn about the Photo Ark, one photographer’s mission to document animals at risk.)
Here are eight Lazarus species we love and where to see them.
Chelonoidis phantasticus (Fernandina giant tortoise)—Galápagos Islands
On February 17, 2019, the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative found a female Fernandina giant tortoise on her namesake island. She’s thought to be over 100 years old, and an individual of her species hasn’t been seen since 1906—so she’s been hiding out for pretty much her entire “extinction.” Tracks and scents around Fernandina Island indicate she’s probably not alone. This lucky lady was taken to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center where she’ll be kept safe from Fernandina’s erratic lava flows and looming Galápagos hawks. (Read more about this species’ recent resurgence.)
Adventuresmith Explorations’ eight-day cruise offers a chance to see not only tortoises, but penguins, marine iguanas, sharks, manta rays, sea horses, and sea turtles in and around Fernandina. Fausto Llerena offers regular tours of their breeding center and the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz.
Pterodroma cahow (Bermuda petrel)—Nonsuch Island, Bermuda
Thought extinct for 330 years, 36 cahows (a kind of petrel) were rediscovered in 1951. Joyfully, after half a century of intensive pest-and-nest management, the Bermuda cahow is on the rise—up from 18 to 131 breeding pairs, with 71 chicks successfully fledged last year. “It’s an ongoing recovery,” says conservation officer Jeremy Madeiros, and “an example for threatened species around the world in an era when encroachment on and destruction of habitats is putting more species at risk than ever before.” (See the world’s largest bee, once presumed extinct, filmed alive in the wild.)
Catch your cahow moment in November on a Bermuda Audubon Society boating tour with Captain Nigel Pollard, who assures that “seeing the majestic birds in flight is a life changing experience.” Tour Nonsuch Island with the Bermuda Zoological Society during April’s chick-checking season, when conservationists visit the cahows’ new home to monitor baby birds. Or sign up for the Nonsuch Expeditions newsletter for upcoming tour notifications.
Equus ferus caballus (Caspian horse)—Missouri & California
Caspian horses have the Hallmark-movie story of all Lazarus species: American Louise Laylin marries an Iranian aristocrat in 1957. They dash off to Tehran. She establishes a children’s equestrian center. The local horses prove too hot-tempered, so Louise and her pals set off on an expedition to the remote Caspian Sea mountains, where they discover three thought-to-be-extinct horses and trot them back to Norouzabad.
Tiny, affectionate Caspians are still an ideal “first horse,” able to be groomed, tacked up, and mounted independently by children. “There’s also the ever-popular ‘less far to fall’ rationale,” Maefield Farm’s Mary Ellenberger explains. Just outside St. Louis, Missouri, Maefield offers Caspian horseback riding by appointment. Gene Gilbert, president of the Caspian Horse Conservancy, also hosts visits and weekend rides at Enterprise Farms in Los Angeles, California.
Coelacanthiformes (coelacanth)—Southern Africa & Indonesia
When naturalist Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer rescued a dazzling, iridescent, 127-pound coelacanth from a South African fish market in 1938, her discovery caused such a fuss that she often joked she wished she’d “thrown the damn fish back overboard.”
Scientists believed the genus extinct, victims of the same 66-million-year-old cataclysm that took the dinosaurs. But two of the world’s 90 documented coelacanth species are still splashing in the deep today. Visit Two Oceans Aquarium’s interactive coelacanth exhibit in Cape Town, then find your flippers. Scuba divers have spotted coelacanth off of Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Comoros, in Sodwana Bay, and in Indonesia’s Bunaken National Marine Park.
Pictured are two golden pheasants (Chrysolophus pictus), a species native to mountainous forests of western China. The birds were photographed by Joel Sartore, a National Geographic fellow and frequent contributor to the magazine. Sartore recently produced the book RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. He also founded the Photo Ark, an online archive of pictures of threatened species (from which this gallery was sourced).
Porphyrio hochstetteri (takahē)—New Zealand
New Zealand’s takahē—an indigenous flightless bird—went missing for almost 50 years before explorers finally rediscovered it near Lake Orbell in Fiordland National Park. Since then, the Takahē Recovery Programme has developed refuges for these shimmery, red-beaked beauties on seven islands and several inland sites (many of which accept visitors). In 2018, thirty takahē were released into the wild for the first time in 100 years.
Kayak to see takahē on Motutapu, or ferry over from Auckland to check out Tiritiri Matangi Open Sanctuary, once home to the infamous “Greg.” Volunteer Kay Milton reminds visitors to keep human food to themselves, and to check gear and footwear for invasive insects and plants before entering the island.
Phoboscincus bocourti (terror skink) and Correlophus ciliatus (crested gecko)—New Caledonia
Just off the coast of Australia, the French archipelago of New Caledonia boasts the world’s most diverse concentration of reef structures, heart-shaped mangrove swamps, and not one, but two Lazarus species. Last collected around 1827, the Bocourt’s terrific skink, or “terror skink” (nicknamed for its sharp, curved teeth) was spotted in 2003 on a small islet off of Isle of Pines. The comparatively cuter crested gecko was rediscovered in 1994 (also on Isle of Pines) after a century of supposed extinction. They’ve also been found crawling about rain forests on Grande Terre. Your best bet for finding either reptile is kayaking and hiking the Isle of Pines environs: You’ll want to bring some snorkel gear.
Gastrotheca cornuta (horned marsupial frog)—Chocó Forest, Ecuador
Horned marsupial frogs live exclusively in the pristine, bromeliad-covered, old-growth jungle canopy of the Chocó Forest, a biodiversity hotspot described by biologist Alejandro Arteaga as “exotic, full of colorful and photogenic animals, and in critical conservation need.” Sixty percent of the Chocó’s 350 amphibian species are endemic and many are still undiscovered (Arteaga has described 18 new species).
Members of conservation initiative Tropical Herping rediscovered the horned marsupial frog in 2018. Females of this unusual species carry a backpack pouch of developing embryos which hatch as complete infants, not as tadpoles. Tropical Herping’s 10-night “100-species tour” takes visitors through Mindo, the Chocó, and the Amazon to observe Ecuador’s 1,065 animal species. (Five percent of the tour cost goes to protect 140 acres of Chocoan rain forest.) Frog walks are best in the rainy season during a new moon.
Catagonus wagneri (Chacoan peccary or tagua)—Gran Chaco
Much like the coelacanth, the tagua (aka Chacoan peccary) was long known only from early Holocene fossil records. In 1974, a University of Connecticut biology professor named Ralph M. Wetzel rediscovered the pig-like endemic on a National Geographic research expedition in the dusty Gran Chaco, a remote region shared by Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.
While endangered taguas do exist in the wild, their territories can sometimes cover 2,400 acres, and they tend to hang out in scrubby thorn forests to protect themselves from jaguars, puma, and local hunters. The easiest place to see them is the tagua sanctuary at the CCCI conservation center and guesthouse in the center of the Paraguayan Chaco.
- Nat Geo Expeditions