These stories always make me chuckle because no matter how much we think we understand about nature and the world, life keeps throwing us curveballs. If I was a scientist, I’d be very careful about declaring something extinct and nonexistent because you never know what you might find around the next corner.
This unassuming little polyp called Protulophila is found in the fossil record dating from the Middle Jurassic era through the Pliocene era when they thought it went extinct. From the fossils, the scientists deduced that Protulophila is related to corals and sea anemones, possibly resembling a hydra.
They thought that it created tiny channels and holes inside the chalky walls of a particular marine worm.
The fossil record sets Protulophila in European and Middle East waters. But recently, scientists discovered more fossils of this creature on the west coast of New Zealand’s north island, in a place called Wanganui. And these fossils were “only” a million or so years old. (Artist’s rendition of what it looks like left.)
So they went back to some preserved tubeworms stored in Australia’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and sure enough, there were some preserved Protulophila in the chalky walls of those tubeworms. These samples had been taken in 2008 near Picton in the South Island’s northeast corner. They had been living in 20 meters (66 feet) of water.
The next step is for the scientists to go and collect fresh, living samples of these tubeworms so they can check for the presence of Protulophila. They’ve targeted Queen Charlotte Sound near Picton to search for samples.
Dennis Gordon of NIWA said, “Our detective work has also suggested the possibility that Protulophila may be the missing polyp stage of a hydroid in which only the tiny planktonic jellyfish stage is known. Many hydroid species have a two-stage life cycle and often the two stages have never been matched. Our discovery may thus mean that we are solving two puzzles at once.”
Meanwhile in Peru, the world has been re-introduced to the cat-sized chinchilla rat. Science knew about it from two skulls that were found in 1912 stowed inside 400 year old Incan pottery. Its formal name is Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat (Cuscomys oblativa) (photo right and lower left).
Park ranger Roberto Quispe actually found a live one in 2009 when he discovered and treated it for some problem it was having. He didn’t realize what he had in his hands, so he was happy to release it back into the wild.
Mexican and Peruvian scientists from the Instituto de Ecologia of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico performed a field study to find it. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams! They not only found the chinchilla rat but seven other new species of animal!
Welcome back C. oblativa! At least this one is cute.
Winning the Race After All
In 2008 researchers from Yale University performed a series of genetic tests on upwards of 1600 giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. They reported what they found in 2012 in the scientific journal Current Biology.
Sure enough, they found descendants of a once thought extinct species of tortoise, Chlonoidis elephantopus, living on the slopes of the volcanoes on Isabela Island. Whalers had hunted their ancestors to oblivion about 150 years ago on Floreana Island which is why they were thought to have gone extinct. The islands are 200 miles apart.
According to Gisella Caccone (senior research scientist at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) in an article for ScienceDaily.com, “This is not just an academic exercise. If we can find these individuals [purebreds] we can restore them to their island of origin. This is important as these animals are keystone species playing a crucial role in maintaining the ecological integrity of the island communities.”
Researcher Ryan Garrick (Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi) was quoted in the same article saying, “To our knowledge, this is the first report of the rediscovery of a species by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring.”
The researchers hope to “resuscitate” C. elephantopus through selective breeding. They added that these tortoises have very long lives so it’s possible purebred individuals are still alive and lumbering around the volcanic slopes on Isabela Island.
Isn’t it amazing how these animals just keep popping up? The differences in the species are often so subtle that even trained researchers are fooled by their appearance. Having genetic technology today is what helps science really keep track of these creatures.
It’s an amazing world we live in, isn’t it?
What animal would you like to see rediscovered?