Educational Series: ‘Back From the Dead’ Animals Can Still be Saved, if We Act Fast

By Nick Engelfried
Nothing is more tragic than the disappearance of a species. Once an animal or plant goes extinct, there’s no bringing it back and the result of millions of years of evolution is gone forever. Today, climate change, habitat destruction, and other effects of human actions are driving species extinct at a rate unprecedented in millions of years. However, every once in a while a plant or animal that was believed to have vanished resurfaces, giving us a precious opportunity to prevent its final extinction.

Thanks to the work of dedicated scientists and communities all over the world, a long list of animals once presumed extinct have been rediscovered. This doesn’t mean they are out of danger; indeed, most rediscovered species are still incredibly rare and need urgent help to prevent their actual extinction. However, the news that a species has not in fact vanished is always a reason to celebrate. Below are some of the most noteworthy examples of animals who were found alive after most people had given up hope–meaning we still have a chance to save them.

De Winton’s golden mole

De Winton’s golden mole is a small but truly beautiful animal, with iridescent fur that inspired its name. The species is one of almost two dozen kinds of golden mole, all found only in Africa and many of which are endangered. Up until very recently, the last De Winton’s golden mole seen alive by scientists was spotted in 1937 in South Africa–and since then, the animal’s habitat has been devastated by mining for diamonds and other minerals. Most researchers presumed the species to be extinct, but in late 2023 a team of scientists announced they had rediscovered it, providing hope for these fascinating mammals.

Because of their underground habits, moles are notoriously difficult to study, and De Winton’s golden mole lives in sandy habitat where even the small tracks the animals occasionally leave above ground quickly fill in. Despite these challenges, scientists from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Stellenbosch University, and University of Pretoria mounted an effort to find any surviving individuals. In November, 2023, the team announced they had found the mole by using molecular analysis to scan for its DNA in sandy burrows. It turns out at least a small population of De Winton’s golden moles survived the ravages of nearby mining. Now the race is on to protect their remaining habitat.

Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna

The Cyclops Mountains, on the Indonesian side of the large island of New Guinea, are a difficult place to access. Steep inclines and sheer cliff faces dripping with tropical vegetation characterize the area, which is periodically hit by earthquakes. Venomous snakes and tree-climbing leeches hide in the undergrowth. Yet, this seemingly inhospitable spot is a stronghold of biodiversity, including species found nowhere else. One of these is Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, an animal once feared to be extinct that was known only from a single specimen.

Echidnas are an ancient lineage of animals now found only in Australia and nearby islands like New Guinea. Along with the equally unique duck-billed platypus, they are the world’s only egg-laying mammals. Echidnas somewhat resemble a hedgehog with sharp claws and a long snout. Attenborough’s echidna is the smallest member of the family, and in 1998 was formally described by scientists as a new species known from a single specimen collected in 1961. Because the animal hadn’t been seen since, many researchers feared human activity might already have driven it to extinction. Its rediscovery in 2023 was truly a reason to celebrate.

An Oxford University team, tasked with searching for Attenborough’s echidna using motion-sensor camera traps, nearly came up short. However, among the very last images taken at the end of the expedition were photos of the missing species, proving it still survives. While looking for the echidna, the researchers also discovered several completely new species of insects and other invertebrates–showing the Cyclops Mountains are a hotspot of biodiversity in need of protection.

Harlequin toads

There are nearly 100 known species of harlequin toads, brightly-colored amphibians found in rainforests across much of Central and South America. They are among the most colorful creatures of the tropics, with many sporting bright pink, yellow, or orange markings that warn predators of their toxicity. Tragically, these beautiful animals were devastated by a deadly fungal disease beginning in the 1980s, with scientists fearing over 80% of harlequin toad species may have gone extinct in the aftermath. Yet, over the last several years a growing list of the toads have been found to have survived the fungal epidemic.

Of the 87 harlequin toad species feared to have disappeared, 32 have been rediscovered–and it seems entirely possible more will resurface in coming years. Their ability to evolve a defense response to the fungal plague may have saved them from extinction for now, but that doesn’t mean these flashy amphibians no longer need help. Indeed, about 60% of harlequin species are classified as critically endangered. Their survival now depends on curbing threats to their continued existence like climate change and habitat loss.

Wallace’s giant bee

In 2019, researchers rediscovered the world’s largest known bee species, which had not been seen alive in nearly thirty years. Wallace’s giant bee was first described to science in 1859, and since then the species–probably never common to begin with–has undergone multiple feared disappearances and rediscoveries while its rainforest habitat in the island country of Indonesia continued to shrink. Until recently, the last known sighting was in 1981. However, the appearance of dead specimens for sale to private collectors in the ‘90s suggested the species might still exist, while also raising flags about an international trade that could threaten any remaining individuals. A desperate search for the insects finally found them surviving in a patch of intact forest on a small Indonesian island.

Wallace’s giant bee is a truly impressive insect, several times the size of an ordinary honey bee. Females are larger than males, and sport a massive set of jaws for collecting the tree resin they use to line tunnels in active termite colonies that serve as their nests. Today, the bees are still considered to be at high risk of extinction due to habitat loss or the trade in specimens for private collections.

Silver-backed chevrotain

The majority of rediscovered animals are amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, or small mammals like De Winton’s golden mole and Attenborough’s echidna. It’s not too surprising that small populations of such creatures might evade detection by scientists for years or even decades. Much less common is the rediscovery of a member of the deer family–but that’s just what happened in 2019, when a research expedition found silver-backed chevrotains living in Vietnam’s Annamese Mountains. The species, also known as the Vietnamese mouse-deer, hadn’t been seen since the early ‘90s and was feared to have been lost in a part of the world where deforestation and over-hunting have driven many animals to the brink of extinction.

To be fair, the silver-backed chevrotain is very small for a deer-like mammal, about the size of a rabbit or cat. This, along with the remoteness and relative inaccessibility of its forested mountain habitat, may have contributed to its avoiding notice for so many years. Three small populations have now been identified–and although researchers are still trying to determine how many individuals actually exist, it appears this rare species has a shot at survival.

Species like De Winton’s golden mole, Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, harlequin toads, Wallace’s giant bee, and the silver-backed chevrotain are beacons of hope at a time when plants and animals are being pushed to extinction at an extreme rate. The rediscovery of these and other at-risk animals shows there is still a chance for their recovery, while underlining the urgency of conservation efforts to protect them from finally disappearing forever. For animal lovers, each of these amazing survivors should serve as an inspiration to keep fighting for every species at risk of extinction.

Photo credit: Andreas Kay

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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