10 Animals Once Thought to be Mythical or Extinct

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A team of scientists raised eyebrows earlier this year when they estimated there are 8.7 million species on Earth. Some critics contend that estimate is much too low. Whatever the exact number, each year hundreds of new species of animals are discovered. Some are offshoots of known species, while others had been considered mythical until their discovery. Each year, scientists also rediscover species that had been considered extinct. Here are 10 species of the Lazarus taxon, 10 animals that were once thought to be either extinct or non-existent.

10. Okapi

The Okapi is a relative of the giraffe, but looks more like a zebra.

Photo credit: Raul 654

Closely related to the giraffe, the okapi looks more like a half-deer, half-zebra hybrid. Although known to the Egyptians, their existence was believed to be mythical until African explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley mentioned them in 1887 in his journals. An example of a living fossil, there are perhaps up to 20,000 currently in the wild and they are featured and bred at many zoos worldwide.


9. Mountain Gorilla

Mountain gorillas were once regarded as mythical creatures.

Photo credit:  Daniel Coomber

Mountain gorillas were sort of a “Sasquatch” of the Victorian era, considered mythical until explorers penetrated the heart of Africa. A critically threatened species, less than 800 are thought to exist around the volcanic mountains in the jungles between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Early evidence for the existence of the mountain gorilla was brought back to Europe via specimens shot in the wild; these primates are now protected and were most famously studied by anthropologist Dian Fossey as depicted in the film Gorillas in the Mist.


8. Giant Squid

The giant squid is rarely seen, but it does exist.

Photo credit: Fair use, Copyright Kyoto Prefecture

Although the existence of small species of octopi and squid have long been known, the giant deep water varieties such as the fearsome Kraken reported by sailors were long thought to be a myth of the high seas until large carcasses were discovered, most notably a giant squid measuring more than 50 feet in length that washed ashore in Newfoundland in 1878. More recently, Japanese researchers made international news in 2005 when they released images of one of these giant creatures in its habitat in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers noted that, “Architeuthis appears to be a much more active predator than previously suspected, using its elongated feeding tentacles to strike and tangle its prey.” These giant mollusks of the deep are now well documented, and are almost frighteningly intelligent, often playing games with researchers.


7. Narwhal

Narwhals were thought to be mythical before being discovered in the Arctic.

Photo credit: Glenn Williams, National Institute of Standards and Technology

These tusked whales are so bizarre looking, it’s easy to see how they were thought to be mythical like the unicorn until explorers journeyed to the Arctic. In fact, the Narwhal horns that made their way into markets in medieval Europe may have been the basis for the legend of the unicorn. Narwhals were first well documented by historian Olaus Magnus in 1555, and narwhals make an appearance in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. These residents of the Arctic may be in danger of extinction due to climate change. As for the tusks, they’re not used for hunting other creatures, as you might imagine, but instead are more like antlers on a stag, used to establish hierarchy among males.


6. Lord Howe Island Stick Insect

The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was eradicated from its home island by shipwrecked rats.

Photo credit: Peter Halasz

This is a real-life “tree lobster,” an insect that can measure up to half a foot in length. Found only on the Lord Howe Island Group off the coast of Australia, this giant stick insect had been considered extinct since 1930 until a research team in the 1960s discovered a tiny colony of them clinging to a huge sea stack about 14 miles away. The primary reason this rare insect became extinct on Lord Howe Island was the inadvertent introduction of black rats during a shipwreck in 1918. Efforts to eradicate the rats and breed the insect in captivity have led to the reintroduction of the insect to the island.


5. Cuban Solenodon

Meet the only poisonous mammal in the world, the Cuban solenodon.

Photo credit: Fair Use, Copyright Miguel A. Landestoy

The Cuban solenodon, a type of shrew, was once thought to have been extinct by 1970. A few years later, they were rediscovered in extreme eastern Cuba. It has most recently been sighted on the island in 2003. Although primarily an herbivore, the Cuban solenodon can kill small lizards or rodents with poison secreted by its saliva during a bite. Once common throughout the island of Cuba, the solenodon was brought to the edge of extinction by predation from domesticated animals introduced by humans and now only exists in tiny numbers in eastern Cuba.


4. Monito del Monte

The Monito Del Monte is a marsupial.

Photo credit: José Luis Bartheld

A tiny marsupial thought to be extinct for millions of years, the Monito del Monte has been found in modern times to inhabit the bamboo forests of the Andes in Chile. In fact, this creature, dubbed the “mountain monkey,” is the only New World example of the superorder Australidelphia, with its nearest known modern relatives living in Australia. It is also the only living example of the ancient order of Microbiotheria and is thus regarded as a living fossil that predates the breakup of the ancient continent of Gondwana.


3. Terror Skink

The terror skink is alive and well in the New Caledonia Island group.

Photo credit: Fair use, Copyright Julie Halatas

A resident of the Isle of Pines in the New Caledonia island group, the terror skink is a small lizard thought to be extinct until rediscovered by French naturalists in 2003. The terror skink is unique for its large curved teeth, which are exceptional among omnivores. Measuring up to 20 inches in length, there are estimated to be fewer than 250 terror skinks on the island, and the species is classified as endangered.


2. Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The ivory-billed woodpecker is the most elusive target in birding.

Watercolored photo Jerry Payne/Arthur A. Allen

When blurry video footage of this bird surfaced in 2004, birders from the world over descended on Arkansas. Once the largest breed of woodpecker in the world with a 30-inch wingspan, the ivory-billed woodpecker had been considered extinct for years, with the last confirmed sighting coming in 1944. Since then, the elusive bird has been spied in the Big Woods area of Monroe County, Arkansas, and along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle. Providing proof of the bird’s existence is considered the greatest quest in birding, and some groups have even offered cash prizes up to $50,000 for anyone who can lead researchers to a living ivory-billed woodpecker. One goal is to capture some video of the bird, but that’s easier said than done, as there’s more existing video footage of such cryptozoological favorites as the Loch Ness Monster than there is of the ivory-billed woodpecker.


1. Coelacanth

Considered extinct for 65 million years, the coelacanth was rediscovered in 1938.

Photo credit: Tokyo Sea Life Park;  OpenCage

The tale of the coelacanth stands as the best example of a modern “living fossil.” Known from fossil records of the Late Cretaceous period, this relative of the lungfish was considered extinct for more than 65 million years until a museum official named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer identified a coelacanth among a catch brought in by a local fisherman off the east coast of South Africa. Since that discovery in 1938, the coelacanth has been discovered throughout the coastal waters of east Africa and as far away as Indonesia. This find and others like it gives researchers a fascinating glimpse of the branches that the tree of life has taken on Earth.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.