When you think of fossils, you probably imagine ancient, long-dead creatures whose bones and imprints have been captured in stone. In short: very, very dead. But, actually, some fossils are very much alive. Scientists refer to plants and animals as “living fossils” if their overall appearance and characteristics haven”t changed in millions of years. Besides being interesting, these animals and plants also help us understand the story of evolution, how it happened, and how it continues to happen.
Check out these creatures that have remained pretty much the same for tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years. Some of them look ancient and strange and others might be surprisingly familiar.
If you came across this pile of vegetation in the Namib desert, you”d probably think it was dead. But in fact, these weird flowering plants have been around since at least the Mesozoic Era, and a single plant can live for up to 2,000 years. Despite all that, they only ever have two leaves. The leaves will shred, however, giving the appearance of more.
2. Gingko biloba
You”ve probably seen these pretty, fan-shaped leaves on trees just about everywhere (and possibly smelled their stinky berries), but you probably didn”t know how ancient the gingko really is. Based on fossil records, gingkos first appeared during the Early Jurassic period some 270 million years ago, and look basically exactly the same as they do now.
Prehistoric creatures are usually associated with ugliness and slime, and the hagfish excels in both areas. These weird, eel-like creatures have a skull but no spinal column, and have remained unchanged for 300 million years. It”s long, fleshy, and covered in slime, so maybe it does pay to be ugly.
4. Hellbender salamanders
These giant salamanders have a fossil record dating back to the Middle Jurassic period, which ended about 161 million years ago. Researchers have found that there is little difference between the 160-million-year-old versions of these creatures and the ones that live today. Despite reaching up to 30 inches in length and its name “hellbender,” this salamander is totally harmless. It”s also known as a “snot otter.”
5. Goblin sharks
Today in “Things You Wish Were Extinct,” we meet the goblin shark, which, yes, is still swimming around right now as you read this. Gross. The species has been around for about 125 million years, and is the most primitive of the order of mackerel sharks. Based on its muscle and skeletal development, it”s suggested that this shark leads a pretty sluggish lifestyle.
6. Purple frogs
You”d think something like this would have died out in like five minutes, but no. This elusive bubble of a frog has been around for quite some time, possibly as far back as 180 million years. It spends most of its time underground, so it”s not often seen, but it makes an oddly chicken-like sound when it croaks.
Pelicans have been around for at least 30 million years. The earliest-known fossil of a pelican, from that time, looks strikingly similar to modern pelicans, with fully developed beaks.
8. Red pandas
The red panda has been on Earth for tens of millions of years, and its ancestors were also the common ancestors of all bears, including the giant panda, raccoons, seals, and walruses. All of those animals used to look like this little guy.
9. Elephant shrews
Weirdly enough, the elephant shrew, named for its long snout, is actually related to elephants, although that wasn”t discovered until later. These nosey little creatures have been around since at least 23 million years ago. Other variations of the elephant shrew have come and gone, and today there are 19 species.
Sometimes casually called “possums” these marsupials, known for playing dead, are more ancient than you think. They”ve evolved into some 103 separate species, and they”re the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere.
Living fossils are pretty amazing when you think about all the life forms that have come and gone on our planet. Assuming humans don”t destroy everything before then, maybe one day we”ll become living fossils ourselves!