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Strange Biology: The Lazarus Taxon

Updated on November 7, 2016
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Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

The Lazarus Taxon
The Lazarus Taxon
A Coelacanth fossill
A Coelacanth fossill

The Strange Case of the Coelacanth

Captain Hendrik Goosen was a keen angler. Nothing prepared him for what he found among his catch on December 23, 1938. He immediately called a woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer to come and inspect his catch. Since her childhood Marjorie has been interested in the curiosities of nature. She had told Captain Goosen to give her a call should he happen to catch any unusual sea life.

Marjorie worked as a curator in the East London Museum in South Africa. She dashed to the docks and sifted through Captain Goosen's catch to uncover, among the mud and the slime, a large dark blue-gray fish with white flecks on its skin. She was fascinated. It was like nothing she has ever seen before. The five foot long fish was an ugly beauty. It was covered in iridescent blue scales and had four thick fins and a funny looking tail.

Captain Goosen helped her haul the fish into a taxi. Marjorie took it to the Museum with a hope of looking through her reference books to identify the species. No luck. She called her friend, Professor James Smith, a keen ichthyologist, who taught Chemistry at Rhodes University. He wasn't in. Marjorie hastily made a sketch of the fish.

Marjorie Latimer's initial sketch
Marjorie Latimer's initial sketch

There was a no mistaking that the creature he was looking at was the mighty Coelacanth, an ancestor of the modern fish. It was thought to be the evolutionary link between the sea dwelling fish and land crawling amphibious tetrapods.

Latimeria Chalumna
Latimeria Chalumna
A Republic of South Africa postage stamp portraying Smith and Latimer
A Republic of South Africa postage stamp portraying Smith and Latimer

Back from the Dead

The strange fish was beginning to smell. Marjorie had a bright idea of hauling it to the local morgue and asking them whether they would preserve it. They laughed. She then sent it to the taxidermist to gut and mount it.

James Smith arrived in East London few weeks later, in February 1939. His ichthyology knowledge proved indispensable. He couldn't believe his eyes. He was looking at something that has been extinct for 65 million years.

There was a no mistaking that the creature he was looking at was the mighty Coelacanth, an ancestor of the modern fish. It was thought to be the evolutionary link between the sea dwelling fish and land crawling amphibious tetrapods.

A fossil of the coelacanth had been found in 1838 and was described and categorised by Louis Agassiz. The fossil was dated over 65 million years old.

It was as if the tide of evolution had changed and the long dead creature had sprung back to life at the muddy mouth of the Chalumna river.

James Smith honoured the observant and persistent Marjorie (and also the place the fish was found) by naming the newly discovered species Latimeria Chalumnae.

He organised regular searches in the area and all around the coast to find another live one. Eventually 14 years later another specimen was found. Soon more were spotted around the Indian ocean. It was if they had crawled back through a time warp. The Coelacanth has come back.

Or risen from the dead, 65 million years later.

Finding the Coelacanth

A plaque in East London, South Africa , commemorating the discovery
A plaque in East London, South Africa , commemorating the discovery

The Island of Devils

Captain Juan de Bermúdez was a brave Spanish explorer. In the year of our Lord 1505, Captain Bermúdez came upon a previously uncharted island in the North Atlantic, off the coast of the New World. The sea was rough, the reefs sharp and treacherous. It was raining miserably.

Edging close to the island, the sailors were spooked to hear eerie cries emanating from the shores, piercing the night. They felt the Devil himself was teasing them through the night. They made a hasty exit, determined not to set foot on what they named 'The Devil's Isle'.

On a later voyage, Juan de Bermúdez, emboldened by the sunlight , eventually found a way past the sharp reefs to land on the sandy beaches. The sailors never dared to venture far into the island. They merely replenished the ship with fresh water and released some hogs into the wild for future hunting and capture.

Little did they know the damage this would cause to the unsuspecting 'Devils'.


The Cahow

The Island of Devils was renamed Bermuda in the Captain's honour. However, the Spanish never managed to colonise the place. The less superstitious British explorers of the Virginia Plantation Company landed there in 1609.

They soon realised the cry of the Devils were actually the raucous cries of the Cahow bird, that roosted on the ground. The Cahow was a gentle bird, hatching its young in burrows on the shore or on rocky outcrops. It was everywhere on this uninhabited island.

The human inhabitation along with the cats, dogs and wild hogs soon finished off the defenceless bird and it went extinct in a few years. From being present all over the island in abundance, no Cahow was left after 1614. A manmade extinction disaster.

Or was it?

Bermuda Terrel ( Pterodroma cahow)
Bermuda Terrel ( Pterodroma cahow)

Over 300 years later, a 15 year old Bermuda born boy, called David Wingate joined an expedition led by Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy and Louis Mowbray around the other smaller islands ( Bermuda is made up of over 180 islands of various sizes) looking for flora and fauna.

The trio came across, nesting in a rocky burrows, 18 breedings pairs of some raucous birds. They couldn't believe it when they realised that the long thought to be extinct Cahow was indeed back in the world.

The Cahow was named the Bermuda Petrel. David Wingate, fascinated that a bird lost for 300 odd years has been discovered, fostered a lifelong interest in ornithology and went onto start a massive conservation exercise to protect this fragile bird which is not seen anywhere else in the world.

No one could believe that the Cahow that scared off the Spanish Sailors and was eliminated mercilessly in the early 17th century, never to be spotted again, could re-emerge in 1951.

As if rising back from its ignominious eradication.

The Bermuda Petrel ( Cahow) is now a fiercely protected Lazarus species and its habitat around the islands of Bermuda is designated as I.B.A ( Important Bird Area).

Hey you!
Hey you!

The Lost Marsupial

Geologists have always known that the Continents were once all together, several millenia ago. The constant crumbling, wrinkling and shifting of the Earth's crust over the hot, molten liquid interior helped to shape the landmass. They call this once unified landmass of all continents, Pangaea.

These drifting and shifting of continents didn't stop even after the arrival of life. The fossils of flora and fauna of India, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia and even Antarctica show enough similarities to postulate that they were all separated from a common antecedent.

This supercontinent that existed during the Triassic era is called Gondwanaland.

The pouched mammals - known as marsupials like Kangaroo are unique to Australia. However, close cousins such as Opossums and Opossum Shrews in South America show a common heritage.

The strangest case of a missing link lies in a pile of bones found in a Queensland farm. The relatively well preserved, fossilised remnants were those of a prehistoric marsupial known as Djarthia that went extinct 55 million years ago. This primitive mouse like mammal belonged to the class Microbiotheria and Australidelphia.

Whereas the New World marsupials in South America belong to the class Ameridelphia.

Monito Del Monte
Monito Del Monte
The Marsupial Tree
The Marsupial Tree

The South American marsupials are suspected to be the ancestors of the Australian line. They show evidence that the two continents were connected via Antarctica in earlier times.

Monito Del Monte

The Little Monkey of the Mountains

Oldfield Thomas, a keen British biologist, worked for the Natural History Museum on classifying of mammalian subspecies. He was an dedicated zoologist, naming and classifying over 2000 species of mammalia.

Even obsessive biologists find ( human!) love. in 1891 he married Mary Kane, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and heiress to a small fortune. Unshackled by the sudden arrival of money, Thomas hired a bunch of fellow mammal collectors and set sail for South America in search of new species. His wife, thankfully shared his interest and accompanied him often on these field trips.

In 1894, deep in the Chilean Andes, Thomas and his team found a cute little fellow who loved to climb trees. The locals called him Monito Del Monte ( little monkey of the mountains). The little creature less than 11 cm long, made its nest among the Bamboo of the Andean mountainside, covering its habitat with fuzzy moss for warmth. It liked fruits and insects.

Curiously, Thomas found that the Monito Del Monte ( Dromiciops gliroides) was not a monkey after all, but had a little pouch on its front to carry the offspring. It was a long lost marsupial from Australia. In fact, it was so lost that it existed when the continents separated, saying goodbye to its Kangaroo cousins. For the Monito belong to the class Austradelphia.

It is also the only surviving member of the prehistoric Microbiotheria.

It's reappearance in Chile further confirmed the continental drift theories. More excitingly, the recent the finding of the Djarthia fossil, confirmed that the little monkey of the mountains was, in fact, the long extinct Djarthia !

Not a bad trick, turning up after 55 million years.

The Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt.
The Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt.

The Lazarus Taxon

An organism widely believed and classified as extinct which then reappears is called ' The Lazarus Species' ( after the raising of the dead Lazarus by Jesus in the Gospel of St John).

If the organism has been extinct for some time, known only to us through the remnants of prehistoric fossils and then reappears in our time, is called a 'Lazarus Taxon'.

The Lazarus effect may be baffling but could be due to an isolated or hidden species in a habitat that is hardly explored, or could be a sampling error. It is rare for a globally extinct species to reappear suddenly in our midst.

Yet instances such as the above three can be baffling, exciting and illuminating. What more, they become a Cryptobiologist's wet dream. Those who search for the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster claim that these are also a possible Lazarus taxa or 'living fossils'.

Strange Biology indeed.

-Mohan Kumar-

Bye, Bye!
Bye, Bye!

© 2012 Mohan Kumar


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    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      I returned to read, and share, your fascinating article another time. I especially enjoy reading articles such as this in which I learn something new.

    • CrazedNovelist profile image

      AE Williams 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very informative piece, Docmo. It's clear you did quite a bit of research to share this. Kudos to you and I hope you're doing well!!

    • Fossillady profile image


      6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Hi Docmo, I know it's been awhile, but I have time right now to get back to my friends on the hub cause of unemployment ... boo hoo. But it's good to see you. I have written a book centered on my fossil's living beings as characters and it also includes a Coelacanth. I was so excited to see you wrote about them and that video has amazing quality that depicts the creature clearer than I've seen before. They've been around approx 400 million years!!! Well, I hope all is well with you and will stop by again!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Mohan, absolutely fascinating! I think all of these stories of animals rising from extinction are fascinating - imagine if you were the one who discovered it?

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      Very interesting. The evolution of earth and it's species always fascinates me. Voted up.

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 

      6 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      Docmo, I always learn some of the most interesting things when I read one of your hubs. Excellent hub, very fascinating! sharing.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      Wow, what a post! You have a little of everything here - I felt like a kid trying to catch all the highlights at one time. This is all so educational and well done. The mouse photo is adorable, not in the home, but to look at here is fine with me.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Such a wonderfully interesting and entertaining hub! I adore the coelacanth. I still remember learning about it in Vertebrate Biology as we traced the evolution of the vertebrates. All those people getting bent out of shape about us being "descended from apes". How do you suppose they would feel knowing we started out as fish?!

      I love hearing about the discovery, or rediscovery, of species. It just proves that there is so much about this planet that we don't know. My uncle is an oceanographer and one of his talking points is the exploration of the deep sea. We spend so much time exploring space and we haven't even learned what is on the planet we live on.... This reminds me of the time I attended a mammalogy conference years back where a scientist gave a serious presentation on the evidence supporting the existence of bigfoot! Hey, you never know.

      Thank you for another brilliant hub highlighting the wonders of biology.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is amazing Docmo. This world and everything in it is exciting to read about. I believe there is much more to learn. I am thankful for a writer, such as you, to introduce we readers to the unusual findings. I adore the little monkey. Thank you so much. I pushed all the buttons my friend. Cheers

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Wow, when I read the name 'Hendrik Goosen' - a typical Afrikaans name and surname - I knew this hub has something to do with South Africa. If not, I thought I would eat my hat. (Now I have to eat half of it, because this hub is actually about extinct creatures coming back to life again.

      Just for the sake of interest - Those days (February 1939) SA did not have the facilities to keep fish alive in quasi-habitats. On top of this, anglers (and even hunters) were so terribly ignorant and blasé, and most probably the majority professional anglers - angling for a living - still are. Captain Goosen was an exception. For example, when a lady once complained while crayfish screamed like babies while they were boiled alive, the angler-chef said: "Not to worry, madam, they're used to that."

      Docmo, I've found this entire hub of you about extinct creatures discovered alive in modern times extremely interested. Calling them 'Lazarus Species' is quite appropriate.

      Another thing for the sake of interest: According to Biblical apocrypha the apostle Peter had raised his mother-in-law from the death. I wonder why the compilers of the Bible decided to regard that happening as apocryphal?

      Hub voted up, excellent, informative, interesting and well-presented.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating indeed. Thank you for doing the research to bring this hub to us.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      A very nice well research hub and interesting! I always love to hear about the strange and unusual species!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      Fascinating details and descriptions, Docmo, of species that were thought to be dead and gone for millions of years. I have read of the coelacanth and the monito del monte, but the cahow/Bermuda petrel was new to me. Thank you for enlarging my sphere of knowledge of the Lazarus Taxon in such an engrossing manner. Voted up, naturally.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Ah, so now my existence has been justified! I was extinct but have reappeared! (smile) This is fascinating stuff, especially to one who is waiting for the day they actually find Nessie! Your research, as always, is impeccable!

      Nothing is impossible in nature Mohan, and this wonderful hub proves that perseverance and science will prove it, but you already knew that ;)

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Miss Mimi profile image

      Miss Mimi 

      6 years ago from On the road again

      This is awesome! I had never heard of the Lazarus Taxon before, but it's incredible and exciting. What a triumph of nature! Thank you for sharing! Voted up, interesting and awesome!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      6 years ago from Northern, California

      I love that you included Marjorie Latimer's sketch! This is really good stuff, Doc!


    • fpherj48 profile image


      6 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Docmo.......This is beyond fascinating. I am quite impressed with Marjorie's enthusiasm and insistence to preserve the strange "fish," until her colleague could lend opinion.....but she did earn an equivalent to her "name in lights," with the dedication plaque, noting a Landing named in her honor. 65 million years??!

      The tiny marsupial, "Djarthia," is too a chipmunk or hamster......but 55 millions years ago? And the Cahow bird, lost for 300 years, reappearing in bermuda Islands in 1951...doesn't seem so fantastic after the discoveries of the coelacanth and the marsupial.

      And how much more incredible can it be that the "monito del monte is discovered a continent away from Cousin Kangaroo, due to the separation of continents?

      Fabulous education, in The Lazarus Taxon, Docmo. All through the reading, I thought of the Yeti and Loch Ness......only to see it at the end of your hub. If BIG FOOT should be discovered, what an FIND! I just don't want to be the one who finds him!!....UP+++

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      What a fascinating article! I've read about the Coelacanth, but the other creatures were new to me. I especially enjoy reading articles in which I can learn something in a gentle sort of way. Thanks for publishing this terrific Hub.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating information Doc! Never knew any of this; as a former history teacher, and science teacher, this info is right down my alley. Great job!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      6 years ago from New York, New York

      Wow, so very interesting and fascinating Docmo. I never really did know much about these creatures that were supposedly extinct, but have found to still be among us. Thank you for sharing and educating us just a bit here on this. Have of course voted up and shared all over!!

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 

      6 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      This is a very interesting hub Docmo. I have read about some of these animals that were believed to be extinct in scientific magazine over the years, especially the one about the coelacanth. Voted up.


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