I See Extinct Things

November 14, 2008 at 8:00 am 4 comments

When I was a young child, one day for no particular reason, I told my grandmother a lie.

“I saw a puffin walking down the street!”

A puffin. In Occoquan, Virginia. Just 35 miles south of Washington, DC.

I wasn’t just a confused little kid. I didn’t see some kind of other bird, say one actually indigenous to the Mid-Atlantic region, and think it was a puffin. I didn’t even see a squirrel cross the street. I fabricated the sighting altogether.

Why? I think I thought if I saw something rare, something unexpected, that would make me special.

(My grandmother must have disagreed, she didn’t rush out and call the Potomac News about my puffin run-in. She just nodded and went about cooking dinner).

Today, I am pushing thirty-four years old and I don’t have to lie. Puffin Schmuffins. This fall I have been so damn special that I’ve gotten to see things SO rare they were once thought to be extinct. That’s right, extinct!

In September, I went with Ryan Somma to the Smithsonian’s new Sant Ocean Hall in the Natural History Museum. One of the many fascinating items they had on display was a Coelacanth.

Coelacanth at the Sant Ocean Hall (Photo by unnormalized)

Coelacanth fossils were first discovered in 1836. After that, numerous fossils were found, but they all dated between 400 to 66 million years ago. Seeing how the last trace of them was, well, 66 million years ago, people came to the conclusion that the fish was extinct.

And then in 1938, a fisherman caught one!

Now we know of two surviving species. Both are currently “critically endangered”, but not “extinct”.

Virginia Round-leaf Birch Tree

Compared to the Coelacanths, the history of the Virginia Round-leaf is pretty brief. The Virginia Round-leaf Birch tree was first discovered in Smyth County, Virginia in 1918. Then like the Coelacanths, all traces of the species disappeared… though for only about 1/100,000 of the time. In the absence, the Virginia Round-leaf Birch was also considered extinct. Then after 60 years of laying low, a small patch of the trees were found.

Today, in the one natural population, less 10 individuals survive and “it may be the rarest native U.S. tree species still existing in the wild.” However, thanks to the restoration efforts (and secrecy!), there are enough artificially propagated trees out there for the species to be considered “threatened”.

And some of those artificially propagated trees were practically in my backyard! There is a small memorial grove of Virginia Round-leaf Birch trees planted at the Virginia Tech Duck Pond. I got to visit them about a month ago, right as their leaves were starting to change.

Virginia Round-leaf Birch Tree at the Virginia Tech Duckpond

Stipules and leaves

So perhaps like my lie to my grandmother, these encounters are not yet worthy of the Potomac News. And perhaps they do not make me personally special.

But I will tell you this. When I am looking at these species, when I reflect on their rarity and how at one point in time their existence was about as likely as a unicorn (or a puffin in Occoquan, Virginia), and when I marvel at the surprises this planet of ours somehow managed to hide… the moment feels powerful.

The moment feels special.

Entry filed under: Coelacanth, Virginia Round Leaf Birch, Virginia Tech.

links for 2008-11-13 Changing Leaves 2008

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. scienceguy288  |  November 14, 2008 at 11:18 am

    That tree, it is amazing how simple something is, and yet, it creates a once in a lifetime moment.

  • 2. links for 2008-11-25 « TGAW  |  November 25, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    […] Thought Extinct, Found After 85 Years | LiveScience Here is another extinct thing I may get to see one […]

  • 3. Lazarus Taxon and Identification By Cage « TGAW  |  May 12, 2009 at 6:00 am

    […] I was on a Lazarus Taxon kick. “Lazarus Taxon” is an official term for my “I See Extinct Things” posts. It refers to species that disappeared from the fossil record, were believed to be […]

  • 4. Portland Arborist  |  November 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Birch are incredibly attractive trees.

    I’m surprised that more people who buy Aspen, don’t just get birch even though the leaves don’t flutter quite as much.

    MDV / Oregon


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