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The West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae; top, preserved) and tuatara (genus Sphenodon) are regarded as living fossils

The term was coined by the English biologist, geologist, and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) in his work On the Origin of Species (1859): see the quotation below.[1]



living fossil (plural living fossils)

  1. (evolutionary theory) Any species discovered first as a fossil and believed extinct, but which is later found living; an organism that has remained unchanged over geological periods. [from 1859]
    The coelacanth and the dawn redwood are living fossils.
    • 1859 November 24, Charles Darwin, “Natural Selection”, in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, [], London: John Murray, [], OCLC 1029641431, page 107:
      [I]n fresh water we find some of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition.
    • 1929 April 18, Edward W[ilber] Berry, “A Revision of the Flora of the Latah Formation”, in W[alter] C[urran] Mendenhall, editor, Shorter Contributions to General Geology 1928 (U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper; 154), Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, OCLC 641551355, page 229, column 1:
      The Gingko, whose single existing species was aptly termed a living fossil by [Charles] Darwin and which survived to modern times only in eastern Asia and is now a prized ornamental tree in all temperate countries, has an ancestral history that goes back to remote geologic time.
    • 1986 October 23, Martin Wells, “Legend of the Living Fossil”, in Michael Kenward, editor, New Scientist, volume 112, number 1531, London: New Science Publications, ISSN 0028-6664, OCLC 761620626, page 36, column 1:
      It features in textbooks as well, a prime example of a "living fossil", a reminder of past glories now hanging on in a last-ditch action against final extinction. But is nautilus really an anachronism?
    • 2001 August 10, “Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie – Part II: The Samurai Called Jack”, in Samurai Jack, season 1, episode 2, written by Paul Rudish and Genndy Tartakovsky:
      Angus: Impossible! If what you say is true, he'd have to be thousands of years old. / Rothie: Astounding! The age-o-meter dates your particles all the way back to 25 B.A., twenty-five years before Aku enslaved the Earth. You, my friend, are a living fossil. / Jack: So the question is not where I am but when I am. [] The spell Aku cast must have ripped me from my own time and flung me into the distant future.
  2. (evolutionary theory) Any living species which very closely resembles fossil relatives in most anatomical details.
    Crocodiles are living fossils that haven’t changed their appearance much in millions of years.
    • 1967 April, J. I. Daeley, “Pluralism in the Diocese of Canterbury during the Administration of Matthew Parker, 1559–1575”, in C. W. Dugmore, editor, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, volume XVIII, number 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISSN 0022-0469, OCLC 263589296, page 34:
      Living in apparently splendid ease, travelling with a retinue of seventy, demanding the many courtesies due to a peer of the realm, exacting from his many manors rents and incidentals such as private wardships, in exactly the same way as did the lay lords, and making the most of his public appearances in the role either of judge or of administrator, [Matthew] Parker seemed to some an anachronism. He seemed to be a living fossil from 'the days of popery' (as contemporaries, lacking an historical sense and groping for an expression adequate to convey what they meant, called the medieval era).
    • 1984, Frederick R[obert] Schram; Robert R. Hessler, “Anaspidid Syncarida”, in Niles Eldredge and Steven M. Stanley, editors, Living Fossils (Casebooks in Earth Sciences), New York, N.Y.: Springer Verlag, →ISBN; 1st paperback edition, New York, N.Y.: Springer Verlag, 1984, DOI:10.1007/978-1-4613-8271-3_22, →ISBN, ISSN 0178-5621:
      There are four living families of Anaspidacea, but only the Anaspididae are of interest in the context of "living fossils" since they bear the closest resemblance to the extinct Palaeocaridacea.



  1. ^ Keith Stewart Thomson (1991), “A Living Fossil”, in Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth, New York, N.Y.; London: W. W. Norton & Company, →ISBN, part 1 (Early Days), page 71:
    Charles Darwin [] coined the term living fossil in his famous book The Origin of Species (1859), when he used it to describe primitive living organisms like the lungfishes, which he saw as relics from ancient diversifications, []

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