Monday, February 11, 2013

Prehistoric Survival?

Throughout the centuries, many startled eyewitnesses have reported seeing animals which strongly resemble extinct creatures from a past age. Of course, most scientists just dismissed these reports as pure fantasy or mythology. In reality, though, the possibility of animals surviving from the past into the present-day is not as far-fetched as it might sound at first.

There are many examples of new species being discovered which were believed to have been long-extinct prior to their discovery. For example, one of these survivors from prehistory is a fish called the Coelocanth (pictured below). Coelocanths are an order of fish which were believed to have died out alongside the non-avian dinosaurs, around 64 million years ago. However, in 1938, a fish was caught off the coast of South Africa that looked very strange, and different from any other fish known to science at that time. After it was shown to a biologist, his eyes nearly popped out of his head! He knew instantly what type of fish it was. He was shocked because he had never expected to see such a fish alive, for here, in front of his own eyes, was a living, breathing coelocanth.

The coelocanth was believed to have been extinct for 64 million years until 1938,
when a living one was discovered off the coast of South Africa. (Robbie Cada/Wikimedia Commons).

Another creature long believed to be extinct but which turned up alive and well is the Laotian Rock Rat. This remarkable rodent belongs to a family called the Diatomyidae. For many years, it had been believed that all diatomyids had been extinct for 11 million years. But in 2004, Jenkins et. al. reported the discovery of a brand-new species of rodent in Asia. They called it Laonastes aenigmamus. Believing it to be basal to all other hystricognaths, they created a whole new family for it: the Laonastidae. However, in 2006, Dawson et. al. studied the available evidence once again, and they came to the conclusion that Laonastes actually belongs to the family Diatomyidae, which, at the time, was believed to have been extinct since the Miocene Epoch. Dawson and colleagues also described this species as being a 'Lazarus taxon'. Lazarus taxa are creatures which appear in the fossil record for a period of time, and then completely disappear for a while before turning up again all of a sudden many millions of years later. 
Since no Coelocanth or diatomyid fossils have been discovered since their supposed extinction dates, both of these amazing animals can therefore be considered Lazarus taxa.

This is a skull of a Laotian Rock Rat. Until 2006, this fascinating rodent was believed to have
been extinct since the Miocene Epoch, about 11 million years ago. (Laurent Marivaux/Wikimedia Commons).

In my opinion, the Coelocanth and the Laotian Rock Rat are the two most important Lazarus taxa discovered within the past 100 years. However, many cryptozoologists, such as Dr. Karl Shuker, have done a lot more research on this topic than me, and you can find many more examples of creatures like this in their books.

The reason why I decided to write about Lazarus taxa is because of something quite strange that I have noticed. One of the main skeptical rebuttals to the idea of living non-avian dinosaurs is that no fossils of them have been found between the end of the Cretaceous period, 64 million years ago, and the present-day. However, as you can clearly see, the Coelocanth & Laotian Rock Rat are living proof that this is not a tenable argument at all. There are no fossils of the Coelocanth after the end of the Cretaceous, yet they are still alive and well, and there are probably many of them swimming around off the coast of Africa right now, as I am typing this. And there have been no fossils found of the Laotian Rock Rat for the past 11 million years, yet it is also still alive and thriving. 

Therefore, I cannot think of any reason why the same logic should not apply to reports of alleged surviving non-avian dinosaurs, as well. Another famous skeptical argument is that if living non-avian dinosaurs truly do exist, we would have already discovered them by now. However, skeptics who use this argument usually assume that we're talking about huge dinosaurs, such as large sauropods or ceratopsians. And I think it is somewhat unlikely that large dinosaurs could have been able to survive the K–T mass extinction event. The only non-avian dinosaurs which I think have a large possibility of still being alive are the smaller ones. And it would obviously be much easier to hide a smaller dinosaur, than a large one the size of an elephant.

Another common rebuttal is that all or most of the wilderness on Earth has already been explored, and that there is no suitable habitat for supposed prehistoric survivors to hide in, anyway. However, as Dr. Karl Shuker has very correctly pointed out, the truth is, indeed, very different. Large areas of the world still remain largely unexplored and uninhabited. The tropical and semi-tropical rainforests of South America are an excellent example. Other good examples include the Congo rain forests of Africa, and the forests of Western New Guinea. These areas are usually impenetrable to all but the hardiest explorers and some native tribes. 

In conclusion, after examining all of the available evidence, I have decided that the idea of living non-avian dinosaurs is not really that far-fetched, after all. After all, if the 2 creatures that I mentioned above managed to remain hidden until 1938 and 2004, respectively, it's not that hard to imagine the possibility that there might still be other hidden survivors from the past, waiting to be discovered and catalogued in the zoology books.

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