Kenneth Setzer

Lost & Found Creatures—The Lazarus Species

So-called “Lazarus species” are living things declared extinct, only to be rediscovered alive at a later date; sometimes much later.

I’ve been meaning for quite some time to compile a list of plants and animals (and any organisms from other kingdoms) that belong to this club. It turns out, there are quite a lot. Some are mundane and not very “glamorous,” to most people anyway. Others are incredible and gripping to just about anyone. All of their stories are fascinating: how could an entire population—even bigger, a species—of something be dead, wiped from existence, nowhere to be found on the planet? Then, someone discovers that, oh well, we were wrong, there ARE some tyrannosaurs left.

Where should we start?

Let’s start with the  Wollemi pine, Wollemia nobilis. This tree is a member of the Araucariaceae family, along with monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) and the common Cook and Norfolk pines (A. columnaris and A. heterophylla respectively) whose members peaked in diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, only to later dwindle during the same extinction event the dinosaurs failed to survive about 66 mya. None of these are actually pine trees, but, like pines, are conifers.

Now, all extant auricarians live in the southern hemisphere, save for a few kauri trees that straddle the equator.

Retreat to Gondwana

In September, 1994, a man named David Noble was out exploring the very remote and rarely visited areas of Wollemi National Park in New South Wales, eastern Australia. A parks employee at the time, Mr. Noble was and is known for exploring parts of the park few, if any, have ever visited. He returned from this foray with plants for identification, having recognized a group of trees as something unusual.

In short, the samples were identified as a plant known from 2-million-year-old fossils, but believed long extinct. Nevertheless, here it was, alive.

Wollemi pines were once far more widespread in what was the massive conglomeration of land called Gondwana. Picture its range shrinking, because of—among many factors likely never all to be known for sure—climate change, competition with flowering plants, continental drift. Shrinking, diminishing further until the year 1994, when the Wollemi pine existed as a small island of plants, unknown to humans except as fossils.

Until, that is, David Noble found them alive and well.

Today, their home is protected, with the exact location thankfully a secret. Wollemi pines are so very vulnerable; their population hovers at fewer than 100 wild trees. But they are propagated and available for sale. This lets you have your very own dinosaur plant while boasting a botanical ark of sorts, while also supporting their conservation and protection.

Wollemi nobilis

Wollemi pine at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

I hope to continue this as a series of plants and animals “back from the dead.” Let’s see, which next?

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This entry was posted on July 10, 2017 by in biology, botany, exploration, Extinction, imaging and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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