Lazarus Species: hope for conservation?

Sometimes, species that were decleared extint are rediscovered, as if they came back to life

Lazarus Species: hope for conservation?

The phenomenon of Lazarus Species is one of neontology, a branch of biology dedicated to the study of living organisms, and takes its name from the passage of the Gospel of John that tells how Jesus brought his friend back to life, three days after his death. An animal or plant species is declared extinct when after a long period of time the existence of a living specimen in the environment is not reported. It becomes a Lazarus Species when one of these species declared officially extinct, is rediscovered, as if it had returned to life.

"The phenomenon of Lazarus Species is extremely interesting for science because when finding these new organisms, the hope that many species, critically endangered and that we assume will disappear very soon, may be more resilient than what they are believed to be returns", says biologist Gina Gómez Junco of the international organization ProCAT. But she adds that "at the same time that these species are telling us that they are resilient, it is also usual that when a specimen of one of these species reappears, they are usually very small, fragile, localized populations and that the conservation efforts must be very large to ensure their permanence on the planet".

This is the case of the Atelopus varius, popularly known as harlequin frog or Halloween frog. This small amphibian, that is actually part of the family of toads, not of frogs, was declared extinct in 1996, and years later, in the province of Punta Arenas in the Coto Brus canton on the border between Costa Rica and Panama, it was rediscovered by an indigenous child who took a bath in the river and extracted it from the biologists of ProCAT who from that moment dedicate their efforts and resources to ensure their permanence among the living.

Diego Gómez Hoyos, a biologist of that organization who is permanently in the field investigating and procuring that the protection and conservation program of this species is a success, "this species in particular is a very sensitive species to the 'BD' fungi (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) which is one of the culprit for the amphibians decline in the world, that is why in the area where we work with these animals, we take precautions to prevent the entry of this deadly fungi". He adds that "not everything is won, it is a very important rediscovery, but precisely for this reason, we must redouble our efforts to preserve stable populations, because losing it once is very bad, but losing it twice is much more than unforgivable".

It was just 12 years ago that this species was considered extinct, but Gina Gomez, Magister Scientiae at the University of Costa Rica, affirms that "not all the species that have been declared extinct remain so short time hidden from the human's eyes, some of them had records only after their fossils and they were considered extinct even from previous eras ". This is the surprising case of the coelacanths (Coelacanthimorpha), a fish rediscovered and described in 1938 that was only known by fossil records dating back 80 million years ago.

Once a species is described, a taxonomic and phylogenetic characterization begins, which can be related to fossils found in advance: "this is much more interesting because we can have records of the origins of the species and it is generally found that they have not changed a lot with the passage of the geological ages and gives us an interesting view on how they have been able to survive and overcome the different changes that the earth has undergone and the fact that they are present today, shows us how some species can remain resistant to the different changes that we are causing on the planet in this era that has been called anthropocene", says Gómez Junco.

The Lazarus Species induce science to look more closely because scientists are constantly searching for new species, species that have not yet been described. However, the reappearance of some, which were declared extinct, not only provides a light From hope to conservation, they can also offer clues to understand how they have been able to survive, many in places that have not been intervened or explored by man, others that have been adapting to change.

Five examples of very charismatic Lazarus species

The Mount Monkey (Dromiciops gliroides) is a tiny marsupial that lives between Chile and Argentina, weighing only 42 grams and is the only animal that feeds on mistletoe (Tristerix corymbosus) and the only one able to dispersing its seeds, so which one thinks that if the Mount Monkey disappears, the mistletoe will also disappear. This is one of the species that was only known by fossils.

The Chaco Peccary (Catagonus wagneri) is a very charismatic mountain pig for its big cheeks and ears, this is one of the species that was considered extinct since the Holocene and from fossils that were compared with a specimen captured by an Argentine hunter, it was determined in 1971 that it was the same species. It is one of the largest Lazarus species and one of the ones that shows that there is still a lot to study and discover on the planet where we live.

One of the birds that is part of the list of Lazarus species is the New Zealand storm petrel (Oceanites maorianus), a species that was believed to have been extinct since 1850 and since 2000 they began to register again. It is one of the most interesting cases of study for scientists, because it is presumed that to guarantee the permanence of their species in the land, they adopted new nesting habits, different from those that were known in the 19th century.

But insects can also resurface from the dead, such as the case of the Howe stick insect that takes its name from the island where it disappeared, Lord Howe in Australia considered extinct since about 1930 and was observed again in 2001, however, rediscovery site was not in that Australian island where it was originally, was recorded in a nearby island. This case is a challenge to scientists, it is evaluating how viable is the reintroduction of species to which they originally disappeared or if some species enter a "vortex effect" and reached the point where their extinction is irremediable.

Undoubtedly, in Latin America there is one of the most charismatic Lazarus species, the Cuban almiquí (Solenodon cubanus), a small mammal that belongs to one of the smallest taxonomic groups in number of species, the Soricomorphs to which also belong the moles and the shrews In 1860 about 36 individuals were captured, but it was declared extinct in 1970 because since 1890 no other specimen of this species could be observed being rediscovered in 2003.


Latin American Post | Alberto Castaño Camacho

Copy edited by Laura Rocha Rueda

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