Lets make living fossils extinct

Research involving Dr Rob Hammond from the Department of Genetics has been cited by the Guardian in an article about 'living fossils' - and if it's time for scientists to retire the term.

The article discusses how the term 'living fossil' is often used to describe organisms like coelacanths, nautiluses, tuataras, horseshoe crabs, tadpole shrimps and hagfish, which are rarely mentioned without reference to them being living fossils and relics.

However, the piece argues that the complex and varying classification of 'living fossils' makes them divisive, and that the 'living fossil' idea, perpetuated through rote repetition without examination is now an unshakeable meme, with the concession that 'living fossil' is often put in quotation marks, indicating that it is perhaps meaningless. 

Conducted with Tom Mathers, a colleague at the University of Hull, the article cites Dr Hammond's research at two points:

  • One species of tadpole shrimp, Triops cancriformis once thought to be the oldest living species that has remained unchanged for 200 million years, is probably not as long lived, a study of the group has shown that tadpole shrimps have undergone a series of radiations, while remaining morphologically similar (Mathers et al. 2013).
  • Evolutionary analysis of other classic living fossils such as cycads, nautiloids, horseshoe crabs and monoplacophorans indicate that there’s an empirically weak basis for the subjective notion of living fossils, molecular complexity exposes the limitations of information from fossil analysis alone (summarised in Mathers et al. 2013).

The article concludes that with so many issues around 'living fossils', it doesn’t help the understanding of science and that, in general use, the term creates more mystification than it resolves and detracts from the organisms themselves. Instead, the article proposes the adoption of the more positive idea of 'evolutionary distinct' as used by the Zoological Society London’s EDGE of existence project, which seeks to highlight and prioritise the protection of species on the basis of their evolutionary distinctiveness, millions of years in the making.

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