Animals that were almost extinct and came back are dubbed ‘Lazarus animals’ after the biblical character Lazarus, a man who rose from the dead.
Lazarus species are amazing. They’ve survived ‘extinction’ but clung on, shied away from humans, and cleverly kept themselves hidden.
Here are 7 animals that made a comeback!
1. Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae)
Experts thought Coelacanths (see-la-canths) went extinct millions of years ago with the dinosaurs, but in 1938 a fisherman caught a coelacanth in the West Indian Ocean. This wasn’t a one-off either. In 1998 another coelacanth was caught on the Indonesian coast. Both weighed a massive 200 pounds and were six feet long.
Coelacanths are a type of large prehistoric fish that tetrapods evolved from, so when they were caught, scientists were keen to study them. The international journal, Nature, explains how their genome sequencing provided insights into tetrapod evolution.
‘Extinct’ for 65 million before making their reappearance! Is there anything that can beat the coelacanths’ Lazarus record?
2. Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri)
This beautiful flightless swamp bird is native to New Zealand and was historically hunted by the Maori for its iridescent feathers. The shimmering takahe has a dark blue head, bright blue wings, a white tail, and a teal greenback. It’s around 25 inches long and weighs six pounds.
Europeans first discovered Takahes in 1847 and classified them by their fossilized bones before live specimens were found. However, it wasn’t long before takahes disappeared. It was thought they were killed off by settlers’ dogs and cats or over-hunted for meat. They were presumed extinct until 1948, when explorers found a live takahe in the Murchison Mountains.
Today 300 takahes live in a New Zealand sanctuary, and 30 were released into the wild in 2018. After being pushed to the brink of extinction, it’s good to see this gorgeous swamphen benefitting from a breeding program.
3. Bermuda Petrel (Pterodroma cahow)
Bermuda Petrels were why European explorers christened Bermuda’ the island of demons’. They were loud, raucous, and not afraid to divebomb predators with an eerie ‘ca-how.’ Ca-how is a mnemonic that gave rise to their scientific name Pterodroma cahow.
They were presumed extinct in 1620 after settlers ate their ground-based eggs and cats and dogs preyed on them. It was a surprise when 10 nesting pairs were found 300 years later on a small remote islet in Castle Harbor, Bermuda.
These glorious birds are some of the rarest seabirds, so they’re protected and part of a breeding program. There are around 250 individuals, and researchers have discovered they pair up for life (for about 30 years!) and only produce one egg a year. The Bermuda petrel is now the national bird of Bermuda.
4. Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)
Discovered in 1904, Cross River gorillas were left unstudied and presumed extinct until a small group was re-discovered in 1987 – a break of 83 years and certainly a contender for the ‘animals that were almost extinct and came back’ list!
This gorilla subspecies is smaller than others, such as eastern gorillas. They live on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria in dense forests and are now a protected species. This sassy gorilla has been spotted throwing mud and sticks at humans that venture too near.
In 2009 conservationists managed to get photographs of family groups with babies. This is excellent news because it shows the protected areas are working. Hopefully, the 200-300 left will strengthen the numbers of Cross River gorillas with government and conservationists’ help.
5. Terror Skink (Phoboscincus bocourti)
The best named of the animals that were almost extinct but came back is the terror skink. It gets this cool name from its sharp curved teeth and taste for meat.
The terror skink is around 20 inches long and native to New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. Its territory is only 0.35 square miles spread across two islands, which makes it vulnerable to threats such as wildfire, hurricanes, and introduced predators.
Because only fossils had been found, it was presumed extinct, but in 1993 a terror skink was spotted, and another was seen again in 2003, 2009, 2013, and 2018! It turns out the skink was not extinct. The terror skink’s secretive habit and lightning-fast speeds make it possible that they inhabit other Pacific islands, and we just haven’t seen them yet.
6. Australian Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis)
These cute, dumpy little birds are native to Australia and nocturnal. Small and short-tailed with yellow, green, brown, and black feathers, they are ground-based and don’t often fly.
Australian night parrots were once numerous, but they disappeared in 1912. It was thought that settlers’ dogs and cats destroyed the population, but in 1990 a dead one was found beside a road in Queensland. This prompted a search, and 15 years later, a man named John Young photographed a live Australian night parrot. However, some of his evidence was questioned and removed from the official records in 2019.
In 2015 Steve Murphy, an ornithologist, caught and radio-tagged a live Australian night parrot before releasing it back into the wild. Today, Australian night parrots are considered endangered, and their population is unknown. A Lazarus animal or extinct? It’s such a mysterious bird we just don’t know.
7. Cuban Solenodon (Solenodon cubanus)
There are two species of solenodon, the Cuban and the Hispaniolan. The 16-22 inch Cuban species was considered extinct but came back for a second show.
Cuban solenodon were declared extinct in 1970. Then in 1974, researchers found them in the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa Mountain Range. It’s an unusual creature because it’s one of the very few venomous mammals. A descendant of insectivores that lived with dinosaurs, it’s a nocturnal burrower and travels along the forest floor to hunt out insects. Only 36 have ever been caught!
Their comeback isn’t guaranteed though. Cuban solenodon habitat is shrinking (it’s endemic to mountainous forests in eastern Cuba), and introduced predators like the ferocious Asian mongoose prey on them. The last sighting was in 1999.
So, there we have 7 animals that were almost extinct and returned. Six out of seven were pushed to the brink of extinction by human behavior, most notably habitat destruction and predator introduction.
It serves as a stark warning that when humans change an environment, it can lead to the loss of many animal species.
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