"Living fossil" is a term used to describe animals that look very similar to their ancestral relatives known in the fossil record. In actuality, all species experience genetic drift so species today are actually totally different from their ancestors of the past (so they are only superficially similar). But still, they look very much the same, exhibit much the same behavior, and have the same body plan.
If one would like to go looking for real fossils, then there are a number of superb places in the United States and beyond to check out. Mistaken Point in Canada's Newfoundland is particularly significant for its rich collection of fossils. But if one would like to see some of today's "living fossils" that have been in the fossil record for millions of years, here are some ideas. They offer a window into the creatures of the distant past.
The Tuatara of New Zealand
At first glance, the Tuatara looks just like another lizard, but it is far from a lizard. It is the sole survivor of a very distinct lineage of the order Rhynchocephalia. This lineage dates back 250 million years to the Triassic period (the beginning of the dinosaurs).
- Found: In New Zealand
While it superficially resembles lizards, the Tuatara's largest common ancestor with them was a group known as the squadmates - that includes both lizards and snakes. That means lizards and snakes are more closely related to each other than with the Tuatara.
There are only one species of tuatara today and are notable for having a third eye (although it doesn't really function nor is it particularly visible).
- Length: Up To 80 cm (31 in) from head to tail tip
- Weight: Up To 1.3 kg (2.9 lb)
Today they are extinct on the main islands of New Zealand (the North Island and South Island) and are confined to 32 small offshore islands.
They can be seen in New Zealand's "Zealandia" wildlife sanctuary and in the Southland Museum and Art Gallery (free entry).
Zealandia is a lush very fenced forest to keep out pests that is home to over 40 rare species of native wildlife and is home to over 150 kiwi birds roaming free.
- General Admission: Adult $23 NZD - $16 USD
- Opening Hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
The Echidnas Of Australia
One of the strangest kinds of mammals is the monotremes. These are egg-laying mammals whose surviving members only include the Echidnas and the platypus. These spiny creatures may look like a hedgehog or an anteater but they are not related at all.
- Monotremes: Egg-Laying Mammals That Only Includes Echidnas and Platypus
- Found: In Australia and New Guinea
Today there are four extant species of echidnas that live in Australia and New Guinea. They evolved between 20 and 50 million years ago and are believed to have descended from a platypus-like monotreme. That means that the echidna's ancestor was aquatic - but they have since adapted to live life on land.
To see the best of native Australian wildlife, consider visiting Australia Zoo - the zoo of the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.
Horseshoe Crabs Of The Atlantic Coast
Horseshoe crabs are a very curious ancient lineage of arthropods. They are today the only living members of the order Xiphosura and are not related to crabs or crustaceans but closer to arachnids (spiders etc.).
Horseshoe crabs live primarily in and around shallow coastal waters on soft, sandy or muddy bottoms. They are eaten in parts of Asia and their population has been in decline recently.
Their fossil record goes back as far as 480 million years ago and is truly ancient. They also normally swim upsize down.
- Blood: Their Blood Is Blue And They Are Harvested For Their Blood for Scientific Research
- Fossil Record: 480 Million Years
- Species: There Are Four Species Of Horseshoe Crab
- Where To See: The Atlantic Coast of North America, The Indian and Pacific Oceans
Their blood also has special properties and is harvested for scientific research. Because of the copper present in hemocyanin, their blood is blue and their blood contains amebocytes. Around 500,000 of them are harvested annually for this - but scientists are careful not to take too much blood, and most survive it and are released back into the wild.
They are found along the Atlantic coast of the North American coastline as well as along the East and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico. Other species live in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Asia.
Other "living fossils" include the red panda, the alligator snapping turtle, crocodiles, Asian forest tortoise, the nautilus, jawless fish (hagfish and lamprey), pelicans, and many more. These are all animals whose form hasn't changed much in a very long time.