The Lazarus Taxon: Something “Raised From The Dead”


There is a concept in biology called the Lazarus taxon.  The word taxon (plural taxa) means a taxonomic category, as a species or genus.  The term is used to describe animals or plants that vanish from the fossil record for long periods of time, only to “reappear” at a different point in history.  Organisms long thought to be extinct suddenly appear on the scene.  Why does this happen?  The biologists tell us it can be for many reasons:  the fossil record is sporadic, and not all species are preserved in it.  Some are; and some are not.  The reason why the word Lazarus is used is because it refers to the New Testament story of Lazarus being “raised from the dead.”

I find this entire concept fascinating.  The idea that something thought to be long dead can suddenly appear on the scene:  it is like discovering a long-lost treasure.  It is like stumbling on a gold mine.  There are a number of animals that qualify as Lazarus finds.  We can read about the rare New Zealand bird called the takahe, which was believed to have gone extinct in 1898 until it suddenly appeared in 1948.  My favorite Lazarus tale is the story of the rare fish called the coelacanth.  I first read about it many decades ago and it still sends the pulse pounding:

In 1938, thirty two-year-old Marjorie Courtenay Latimer was the curator of a tiny museum in the port town of East London, northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. She had befriended a local seaman, Captain Hendrick Goosen, of the trawler Nerine, which fished the nearby coastal waters of the Indian Ocean. When he put into port the captain made a frequent practice of having the dockman call Miss Latimer to come look over the Nerine’s catch. She was welcome to take any unusual specimens she might want for her museum.

On December 23rd, 1938, the Nerine entered port after a stint trawling off the mouth of the nearby Chalumna River. The dockman called Marjorie, who was busy mounting a reptile collection, but felt she ought at least go down to the docks to wish the crew of the Nerine a merry Christmas. She took a taxi, delivered her greetings, and was about to leave when, according to her account, she noticed a blue fin protruding beneath a pile of rays and sharks on the deck. Pushing the overlaying fish aside revealed, as she would later write, “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings.” Marjorie had no idea what the fish was, but knew it must go back to the museum at once. At first the taxi driver refused to have the reeking, five-foot fish in his cab, but after a heated discussion, he drove Marjorie and her specimen back to the museum.

Raking through the few reference books on hand, Marjorie found a picture that, she has said, led her to a seemingly impossible conclusion. Her specimen bore similarities to a prehistoric fish, particularly in the structure of the head and the tri-lobed shape of the tail. She made a rather crude sketch of the creature, which she mailed, along with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a forty one- year-old persnickety chemistry teacher with a locally well-known passion for fish, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, some fifty miles south of East London. Smith, however, was away for Christmas holidays, correcting exams at his seaside getaway. Meanwhile, Courtenay’s museum director in East London was not impressed with the find. He dismissed the fish as a common rock cod- a grouper!

But on January 3, 1939, Miss Latimer heard back from Smith in a now famous cable: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.” However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded. A search for them in the museum and town trash bins proved fruitless. Even photographs taken of the preparation had somehow been spoiled.

Smith, anxiously biding his time, wondering how he could incorporate the possibility of such a discovery into an already overloaded dual career, did not arrive at the East London museum until February 16. The professor, a thin wiry man of about 5’7″, sporting, as was his custom, a close-cropped crew cut, khaki bush shorts and sandals, viewed the mounted specimen, exclaiming, according to one account, “I always knew somewhere or somehow, a primitive fish of this nature would appear.” Smith identified the fish immediately as a coelacanth, that is as a member of what must be a still living coelacanth species. The fish would soon be called the “most important zoological find of the century” (an accolade that might now go to the Martian microfossils if they check out.) A living dinosaur, it was said, would be no more amazing than this incredible discovery.

After a local newspaper reporter was allowed to take a single photograph of the mounted coelacanth, the picture soon appeared around the world. Smith, Courtenay-Latimer, and the coelacanth became overnight celebrities. When a public viewing for one day only was arranged, 20,000 visitors are said to have shown up.

Live specimens of the fish were eventually observed and found.  It is a beautiful fish, primeval in appearance, like something that more belongs to the Jurassic Age.

If we stretch the concept a bit, we could apply the Lazarus idea to ancient books and manuscripts.  I told the story in Stoic Paradoxes of the discovery of Cicero’s lost work De re publica.  In 1820, an Italian Jesuit scholar named Angelo Mai stumbled on an old palimpsest in the Vatican Library.  A palimpsest is a parchment writing that has been cleaned off and reused.  Parchment was expensive in the Middle Ages and it was not uncommon for monks and scribes to sponge off old writings and reconfigure the parchment for new copying.  Mai used chemical techniques (that modern conservationists would be horrified at) to recover the old writing; the nearly complete text was published in 1822 and 1826.


I recently finished a book on the recovery and preservation of the so-called Archimedes Palimpsest.  Its story is perhaps the most harrowing and remarkable in the history of the written word.  Archimedes, the reader will be reminded, was the greatest scientist of the ancient world and among the most original geniuses in history.  One of his most important treatises was copied in the early medieval period, but around the 1220s this codex was scraped off and reused for a religious text.  (Ancient science held no interest for monks).

The codex made its way to Constantinople and in the last nineteenth century was observed by several people.  Eventually a German scholar named Johan Heiberg saw the codex for what it was, and realized that it contained several works by Archimedes long thought to have been lost.  It must have been a moment beyond the power of words to describe.  Even after the book was discovered, it was nearly lost during the political chaos that consumed Turkey and the Near East after the First World War.  Imagine how agonizing it would have been to lose the work again after rediscovering it after two thousand years.

One wonders what other lost treasures are out there, buried in libraries under piles of dust, or sitting neglected in some attic or basement.  The missing books of Tacitus’s Historiae or Annales?  Only time will tell.  Petrarch mentions in his letters that he had seen and examined Cicero’s lost work De gloria  (On Glory).  This was in the fourteenth century.  If so, the work was lost again between 1350 and today.  We do not have it.  Did Petrarch actually have the work, or was he mistaken?  We do not know.  Maybe it will turn up some day in the Vatican Library.  Or maybe it is lost forever.

We should always be on the lookout for rare and precious things.  It doesn’t matter what they are: animals, plants, books, people, anything.  It is a precious thing to be a Lazarus taxon:  that is, something brought back from the dead.  And to be its re-animator would be more incredible still.  I was at a museum last week and read on a placard at one of the exhibits that the ancient Hindus believed a man achieved more credit in heaven by restoring an old temple than by building a new one.

And I thought, yes, I agree with this.