Sometimes, extinction doesn’t last forever. Biologists have declared many rare and endangered species extinct after failing to locate any living specimens in the wild for a long time — only to rediscover them decades or even centuries later. Scientists call them “Lazarus species,” after the biblical figure who died and came back to life. Here are a few you should know.
Coelacanth: Extinct From the Late Cretaceous to 1938
A South African fisherman caught a mystery fish in 1938 and brought the specimen to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the director of the local museum. She shared it with prominent ichthyologist J.L.B. Smith, who identified it as a coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), a type of bony fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs about 65 million years earlier. Coelacanths have anatomy unlike any other animal — for example, a unique intracranial joint allows them to turn their heads upward while feeding. In a 2021 study, scientists looked at growth rings in coelacanth scales and estimated they can live up to 100 years.
Cahow or Bermuda Petrel: Extinct From 1620 to 1951
Thousands of these small, gray-and-white seabirds (Pterodroma cahow) nested on Bermuda’s beaches when English settlers arrived in 1609. By 1620, invasive pigs and rats had rendered the cahow extinct — or so scientists thought. In 1951, 15-year-old David Wingate and two museum ornithologists were thrilled to rediscover eight nesting pairs on several nearby tiny islands. Wingate launched a cahow conservation and ecological restoration program in 1963 on Nonsuch Island, which continues today. At least 124 breeding pairs nested on Nonsuch and nearby islands in 2018, a sign that the cahow is coming back from the brink.
Black-Footed Ferret: Extinct From 1979 to 1981
Once abundant across North America’s Great Plains, the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) suffered from the loss of its grassland habitat to agriculture and decreasing populations of prairie dogs, its main prey. Scientists believed they were extinct by 1979. But two years later, a dog named Shep discovered a black-footed ferret population near a Wyoming ranch. Wildlife officials collected the ferrets for captive breeding programs, which include about 280 animals today, and between 200 and 300 ferrets have been reintroduced to the wild. To increase the population’s genetic diversity, which is key to its survival, the San Diego Zoo and its partners cloned the first black-footed ferret, named Elizabeth Ann, in December 2020.
Wallace’s Giant Bee: Extinct From 1981 to 2019
The world’s largest bee (Megachile pluto) has a body the size of your thumb and a 2.5-inch wingspan. Despite its obvious charisma, Wallace’s Giant Bee, named after English entomologist Alfred Russel Wallace, hadn’t been spotted in the wild since 1981. Entomologists feared it had gone extinct due to rampant deforestation in its native habitat. It turns out that the bee just excels at hiding — it lives in termite burrows in dense rainforests on a handful of Indonesian islands. Scientists rediscovered a single specimen in January 2019 but noted that the species remains at risk from deforestation and insect collectors.
Crested Gecko: Extinct From 1866 to 1994
This charming, tawny lizard appears to have a crescent of eyelashes around its lidless eyes. Native to New Caledonia, an island group in the South Pacific, crested geckos (Correlophus ciliatis) were first described by a French zoologist in 1866 and not seen in the wild for decades thereafter. Scientists assumed it was extinct, but in 1994, a team of German biologists found them on the Isle of Pines in the New Caledonia archipelago. From a few individuals taken from the island for breeding, the crested gecko is now one of the most popular lizards in the pet trade.
Takahē: Extinct From the Late 19th Century to 1948
Like many of New Zealand’s flightless native birds, the takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) — a large, colorful rail that resembles a cross between a chicken and a cassowary — became prey to the rats, cats, and stoats introduced by European settlers. They were not seen in the wild for about 50 years until 1948, when physician Geoffrey Orbell and three companions located a tiny remnant population in the remote Murchison Mountains. Since then, captive breeding programs have reared and released hundreds of takahē back to the mountains.
New Guinea Singing Dog: Extinct From the 1970s to 2020
These medium-sized, golden-coated canines (Canis hallstromi) were once abundant in the cloud forests of New Guinea, where their unique howls — sounding a bit like humpback whale songs — set them apart from other dogs. Scientists believed that loss of habitat had probably caused their extinction in the wild by the 1970s. A few hundred remained in zoos or as exotic pets. In 2020, a team of American and Indonesian researchers located a population of dogs in the New Guinea highlands, sampled their DNA, and compared it to that of captive New Guinea singing dogs. It matched — confirming that the hills are still alive with the sound of their yelping.