As humans, we tend to think of our time on Earth as a bigger deal than it actually is. While we’ve certainly shaped the world in ways no other species has ever come close to doing, the fact remains that we’ve only been around for a brief blip in the hundreds of millions of years of organic life that has existed. For billions of years, small bacterial organisms ruled the planet. Then, it was jellyfish and sea anemones. Vertebrates finally emerged on the scene a few hundred million years ago, with dinosaurs, mammals, and even large birds all having their respective places in the evolutionary hierarchy.
Nature, however, is often a cruel mistress. One by one, most of these once-great species died off, either due to one of many mass extinction events or as a byproduct of a changing food chain. This is a process that even persists over human civilization – exploration and colonization many times interrupted the delicate ecosystems that had taken millions of years to form, leading to the extinction and endangerment of animals like the dodo bird and many others. But what if extinction wasn’t a permanent status?
The term ‘extinct’ really doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. By definition, a species going extinct means the last members of that species have died off, thus closing the door forever on any possible return. But here’s the thing– we can never be truly sure an animal has fully gone extinct. Despite the fact that the entire world has been mapped out and divided into borders, there are still areas that remain unexplored. In the vast untouched acreage of the Amazon rainforest, for example, the emergence of a previously ‘extinct’ species is far from impossible.
This phenomenon of species rediscovery has been a seldom-discussed bright spot of 2021 when at least five different species formerly thought lost to time have since been found alive and well. The rediscovered creatures range from softshell turtles to African rodents that have been considered extinct or critically endangered for anywhere from two years to several centuries.
Shelley’s eagle owl, for example, was determined to be extinct for more than 150 years until October of this past year, when two men exploring Ghana’s Atewa forest stumbled upon the distinctively giant bird.
“Luckily it perched on a low branch and when we lifted our binoculars our jaws dropped. There is no other owl in Africa’s rainforests that big,” said Dr. Joseph Tobias of Imperial College London, who was luckily able to snap a handful of pictures before the owl flew off. “It was so large, at first we thought it was an eagle.”
There are several other recently found species: the Swinhoe softshell turtle in Vietnam was rediscovered after the last known female had died in 2019, giving hope that reproduction between the animal and its last known male counterpart is possible; the Catasticta lycurgus butterfly reappeared in Colombia; the Shark Bay mouse was found for the first time in 170 years; the Diyarbakir Loach was discovered after 50 years of extinction. These animals were found through a mix of both local academic initiatives as well as large-scale non-profit campaigns. The Diyarbakir Loach emergence came out of the Search for Lost Fishes campaign, a collaboration between actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Re:wild non-profit and Shoal Conservation dating back to 2017. The animal is one of 10 fish targeted for rediscovery as part of the initiative.