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Dogs, drones, and DNA: How eight “extinct” species were rediscovered

A giant tortoise, a seabird, and a gecko all went undetected by scientists for more than a century.

ByBrittany FlahertyNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Black-footed ferrets peek out of a burrow. Thanks to ongoing breeding and reintroduction efforts, more than 500 black-footed ferrets live in captivity and the wild today. Image Credit: Kimberly Fraser / USFWS

It’s hard to imagine an animal with “giant” in its name going unnoticed for decades. But two such species make our list of near misses—creatures once believed to be gone forever. (Most species considered extinct aren’t so lucky.)

Here are the tales of eight underdogs that clawed, buzzed, and scampered their way back onto the radar:

Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)

With rounded ears, a short muzzle, and big, dark eyes, the black-footed ferret is the only ferret species native to North America—and it’s downright adorable. Perhaps surprisingly, this once-presumed-extinct animal owes its recovery to a dog named Shep, an unlikely ally that helped saved the species by killing one of its members.

In the early 1900s, black-footed ferret numbers plummeted when grassland habitats in the western U.S. were converted to farmland. In addition to habitat loss, this change led to severe declines in the ferrets’ favorite food: prairie dogs. Several infectious diseases, including sylvatic (bubonic) plague, which ferrets contract from infected prairie dog prey, also hit the species hard. Because black-footed ferrets are found only in North America, declines in the U.S. meant the dwindling of the entire global population.

By 1979, these fuzzy carnivores were considered extinct.

But just two years later, in 1981, Shep brought a dead black-footed ferret home to her owners, Lucille and John Hogg, a pair of Wyoming cattle ranchers. The Hoggs then took the ferret to their local taxidermist, who confirmed its identity.

Conservationists soon found the remnant population on a nearby ranch and brought the 18 survivors into captivity to help increase their numbers. Today, thanks to careful captive breeding and strategic releases, about 300 to 400 black-footed ferrets scamper about North America.

New Zealand storm-petrel (Fregetta maoriana)

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A New Zealand storm-petrel sails over the sea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Aviceda

With nearly 100 different species of seabirds breeding on its shores and islands, New Zealand is sometimes called the Seabird Capital of the World. But habitat loss and predation by invasive mammals have caused the nation’s seabird numbers to plummet.

For the entire twentieth century, there was not a single recorded observation of a New Zealand storm-petrel—a species only known to science because of three specimens collected in the nineteenth century—and so it was presumed extinct. (The New Zealand storm-petrel is one of about two-dozen storm-petrel species.) The situation shifted in 2003, when birders photographed a member of the long-lost storm-petrel species. Two years later, one of these sparrow-sized birds flew onto the boat of a conservation ranger-turned-fisher who was able to identify the species.

With these two encounters assuring scientists that the storm-petrels were out there, Chris Gaskin, a founding member of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, and his collaborators spent years trying to find more of them and figure out where they nest.

The birds are small, nocturnal, and spend most of their lives at sea—all of which made them difficult to track down. They largely eluded the scientists until 2013, when Gaskin and his team finally found a nesting site. They’ve since captured 400 birds, but Gaskin believes there could be a few thousand alive. Still, the storm-petrel’s situation remains precarious, Gaskin says, since the team only knows of a single site where they breed and nest. “Chances are they’re on other islands,” Gaskin says. “We just haven’t discovered them.”

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto)

The world’s biggest bee seems like it would be hard to overlook. But following heavy deforestation in its native habitat—the North Molucca Islands in Indonesia—Wallace’s giant bee went missing for nearly 40 years.

Dwarfing your average honeybee, Wallace’s giant bee has enormous mandibles (jaws) and a 2.5-inch wingspan—about the width of a tennis ball. The species was named for its discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist and entomologist, who published a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858 arguing the theory of evolution through natural selection. Aside from Wallace’s first identification, the only other recorded sighting of this outsize insect occurred in 1981 when entomologist Adam Messer collected a few specimens. Wallace’s giant bee then went MIA until earlier this year.

In January 2019, a search team found a single female. The team’s photographs and videos are the first-ever documentation of a live specimen of Wallace's giant bee.

Because species this rare can become targets for collectors, Simon Robinson, an Australian biologist on the trip, told Douglas Quenqua at The New York Times that he and his team are keeping the exact location of their discovery quiet. They hope they can learn more about this ultra-rare species and how to help its numbers buzz back.

Fernandina giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus)

The Fernandina giant tortoise was “extinct” for more than 100 years. But on February 17, 2019, researchers found one. Washington Tapia, director of the Galápagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, and his team discovered the female tortoise on the island of Fernandina in the Galapagos, the first of her kind spotted since 1906.

The team had found a clue suggesting the species still roamed Fernandina Island several years prior. In 2015, Galápagos National Park ranger Jeffreys Malaga and Charles Darwin Foundation researcher Patricia Jaramillo spotted feces they believed belonged to the species. Because Fernandina Island is an active volcano, its terrain is challenging to navigate, so it took Tapia years to finally track down the poo-producing (or so he presumes) tortoise. She is now the only known survivor of her kind.

But, based on tracks found it the area, it looks like there may be more Fernandina giant tortoises out there. “It created hope for people to know conservation is possible and that changing human activities is necessary for it to continue,” Tapia told National Geographic. This female is estimated to be 100 years old, but she could live to be 200. If more tortoises are found, she could have another century to breed and help her species rebound.

Crested gecko (Correlophus ciliatus)

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The crested gecko is now one of the most popular species of lizard in the reptile pet trade. Image Credit: Sukee Bennett, WGBH

The crested gecko is unique in many ways. It can lick its own eyeballs and use electromagnetism to stick to walls. Its coloration and scale patterns vary wildly between individuals, and it has a spiky fringe that fans out above its eyes, earning it the nickname “eyelash gecko.” It also has the distinction of going unseen by humans longer than any other species on this list.

After its identification in 1866 by a French zoologist named Alphone Guichenot, the crested gecko was not seen again for nearly 130 years. In 1994, this little reptile, which at around 35 grams weighs about the same as 7 nickels, was rediscovered. During an expedition led by German herpetologist Robert Seipp, scientists found the crested gecko on its native islands of New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific.

Soon after the crested gecko’s reemergence, several live specimens were collected on the islands and brought to Europe and the United States for research. Some specimens were also bred in captivity. While the export of crested geckos from the wild is now prohibited, captive breeding has been very successful: This species is now one of the most commonly owned pet lizards in the world.

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Wood's hau kuahiwi (Hibiscadelphus woodii)

It’s not just fauna that sometimes reappear on our radar. Some plants only grow in incredibly remote locations, meaning it’s difficult for humans to know if they’re still around.

One such plant, a hibiscus relative known as Hibiscadelphus woodii, wasrediscovered in January 2019 on a remote cliff in the Kalalau Valley in Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i: It wasn’t spotted by an extreme expeditioner, but rather a drone surveying the cliff face. The found specimen was not flowering, but its species produces bright yellow blooms that transform to purple over time.

First discovered by botanist Kenneth R. Wood and his colleagues in 1991, this hibiscus relative was listed as “presumed extinct” in 2016 after seven years without a single sighting. Until, that is, a team of researchers flew a drone to scour the hidden ridges deep within the Kalalau Valley. They captured images of a shrub that resembled H. woodii peeking out of the steep rocks that line the Kalalau Valley. This location is home to many threatened plant species, but because they grow so far down on the steep cliff, they are largely inaccessible.

Though researchers were unable to reach the plant by hiking or rappelling, in February, drones once again helped them confirm the sighting. Now, drones may even be sent back into the valley to collect clippings that scientists could use to learn more about the plant, and potentially help it recover by growing cuttings in a greenhouse.

Ben Nyberg, who worked with National Tropical Botanical Garden on this rediscovery project, told Zoë Schlanger at Quartz this is the first instance he knows of in which a drone was used to rediscover a presumably extinct plant species.

Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

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A Takahē sports an antenna so that scientists can monitor its movements. Data like this can better help researchers protect endangered species. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, russellstreet

Along with its namesake storm-petrel, New Zealand is home to another bird that famously surprised scientists with its reemergence: the takahē. Like most birds in New Zealand, takahē numbers were hit hard when Polynesian voyagers, and then European settlers, introduced rats, stoats, possums, and other predators to a country with no native land mammals.

Faced with a host of new threats, nearly 60 of New Zealand’s bird species went extinct—and for about 50 years the large, flightless takahē was believed to be among them.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, its iridescent blue and green feathers were scarcely seen. But in 1948, driven by promising tracks and photographs, an expedition set out to see if any takahē had somehow survived. Physician Geoffrey Orbell and his team uncovered a small population of the birds in the remote Murchison Mountains, to the delight of the nation.

Scientists still don’t understand how this population escaped predation. But they have since helped takahē numbers increase through captive breeding and release onto pest-free islands and fenced-in sanctuaries cleared of mammalian predators. Today, there are approximately 350 takahē in New Zealand.

Lord Howe stick insect (Dryococelus australis)

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A Lord Howe stick insect at the Melbourne Museum in Melbourne, Australia. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Peter Halasz

Nicknamed the “tree lobster,” the Lord Howe stick insect is about the size of a human hand. It inhabits Lord Howe Island, about 350 miles off Australia’s east coast. And like many island-dwelling species, the Lord Howe stick insect was no match for rats, which invaded the island when a ship crashed nearby in 1918. Just a few years later, the insects were difficult to find. In 1960, experts declared them extinct.

Unlike the other species on this list, the reemergence of the Lord Howe stick insect came down to genetics. In 2001, scientists found similar-looking stick insects on nearby islands. They looked different enough, though, that many experts doubted they could be tree lobsters.

To find out, scientists sequenced the genome of the newly discovered insects (a massive genome about 25 percent larger than the human genome) and found that the variation was small enough for them to be considered the same species. Scientists have since bred more from this population. They hope to one day reintroduce the tree lobster to Lord Howe Island—if they’re able to reduce or eliminate invasive rat populations.

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