Awe-inducing creatures like mastodons, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats and even dire wolves (yep, they were a real thing — not just a “Game of Thrones” fantasy) have sadly gone extinct since the last ice age ended about 11,700 years ago. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in seeing prehistoric creatures today. There are still plenty of wildlife species that predate recorded history, and that exist in the same forms they did when they roamed with our loincloth-clad ancestors.
Some of these animals can only be found in zoos and protected nature preserves because their populations are starting to fall, or they are already endangered. Others can still be found in the wild — and maybe even in your own backyard.
Wherever you see them, these ancient animals — some of which might surprise you — are sure to inspire wonder.
All crocodiles, caimans and alligators are ancient species, and they look the part. But one species of crocodilian — the gharial, sometimes called a gavial — beats them all in the prehistoric-looking beauty contest. Gharials have long, narrow, sword-like mouths full of buzzy teeth. Males develop a huge bulbous nose at the end of their snout, making them look rather comical.
Gharials in some form or another have been around for tens of millions of years, but the modern gharial is the last remaining species of this lineage. Alas, it too is heading towards extinction, with fewer than 200 individual reproducing gharials left in the wilds of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The IUCN has listed it as a “critically endangered” species.
Fortunately, the Kukrail breeding center at Kukrail Forest Reserve in Lucknow, India has been playing a massive role in gharial conservation efforts, by breeding the creatures and sending them out to zoos all over the world. The center is also open to the public, so you can get up close and personal with these spectacular beasts. Small populations are also present at Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park in Nepal.
You can find Komodo dragons in Indonesia today, but that might not be where these iconic lizards came from originally. Scientists recently unearthed a series of Komodo dragon fossils in eastern Australia dating back as far as four million years ago.
These gigantic lizards can weigh as much (or more) than a human — and, in fact, they have been known to attack humans. Which is not ideal, since these giant reptiles are somewhat venomous.
However, if you’re still feeling brave, you can see Komodo dragons by booking with one of several outfitters leading excursions to Komodo National Park. The small Indonesian islands that make up this park are stunning, and offer many amenities for curious tourists.
No one’s quite sure how the shoebill stork is related to other birds since different collections of data point to different living relatives, but one thing scientists agree on is that this is a very, very old bird. And it looks the part: Grayish and big-beaked, it looks like it walked right off the set of “The Flintstones.”
Shoebill storks are classified as “vulnerable to extinction” due to habitat destruction and poaching. But you can still see them in a protected area of the Mabamba Bay Wetland in Uganda, where several outfitters offer bird-spotting tours. As you paddle through the shallow lakes and ponds reminiscent of prehistoric swamps, you just might forget your place in time.
You already know about the one-humped camels used as transport in the Middle East before automobiles existed. But did you know that they evolved from the two-humped bactrian camel, which still roams the wilds of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia?
which sort of look like a cross between Chewbacca and a llama — evolved to withstand temperatures below 0°F and above 100°F some two million years ago. Its two humps are used to store fat, which the camel breaks down into energy and water to sustain it during long, dry, food-free periods (if only we could lose fat that easily too).
Bactrian camels are critically endangered in the wild, with fewer than 1,000 left, according to the IUCN. However, domesticated bactrian camels are an important part of Mongolian culture, and numerous tour operators offer camel-riding expeditions. In addition, visitors can check out the annual Thousand Camels Festival, held in early March in Umnugovi, Mongolia.
Echidnas are an amazing and bizarre creature that look like a cross between a badger, a porcupine and an anteater. They’re a monotreme, a type of primitive mammal that lays eggs instead of giving birth to live babies, just like their famous relative, the platypus.
These animals can also be hard to find in the wild, since they’re small, mostly nocturnal, and live a spaced-out and solitary life. Several species of echidna are also highly endangered — a sad fact, considering that these animals have been roaming the earth for an estimated 17 or so million years.
If you want to see a live echidna up close, your best bet is to visit one of the many zoos throughout New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia that house them. They can be found at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Hobart, Tasmania, the Australia Zoo in Queensland, and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
Musk oxen can be quite a sight (and smell) to behold, especially during the fall rutting season. During this time, bull musk oxen fight for control of harems by sprinting towards each other and bashing their heads with such force that it can shake the ground from a long distance away.
It’s a wonder how these animals still survive, but it’s estimated they’ve been around for 187,000 to 129,000 years. In the 1800s they were extirpated from Alaska, but after they were successfully reintroduced in the 1930s, the populations grew. Currently there are several thousand musk oxen in Alaska, though their populations have been declining in recent years.
It can still take some time to find these animals in the wild, but one of the best places to see them is in Nome, Alaska, where they regularly wander near the small tundra town. Nome is also the famous end point of the Iditarod dogsled race, which you can watch in early-to-mid March.
Make sure to also check out Nome vendors selling qiviut, the delicately soft underwool harvested from captive or even wild muskoxen. This wool is some of the finest and warmest in the world (what would you expect from an arctic animal?), and is even rarer than cashmere.
Speaking of luxury wool, another prehistoric animal known for its fiber is the vicuña, the ancestor of the modern-day alpaca. The two animals look very similar indeed, though vicuñas have a distinctive color pattern, with white undersides and a brown saddle across most of their body.
Although vicuñas were treasured by the Incas and protected, they were nearly driven to extinction by hunting after the Inca empire fell. Happily, thanks to the work of many dedicated conservationists, there are hundreds of thousands of vicuñas in the wild today.
You can see them throughout rural roads in south-central Peru, but one of the best places is in Huascarán National Park, north of Lima. There are all sorts of other treasures to see hidden away here, in the world’s highest tropical mountain range, including spectacled bears, Andean condors and the amazing Queen of the Andes flower.
The chambered nautilus normally lives in the deep ocean around Australia and Indonesia, but if you happen to be in the area of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, you can see the ancient creatures up-close.
These alien-looking corkscrew-shaped animals are among the oldest in the world. Fossils of this animal have been found from 500 million years ago, and they still look exactly the same as today’s descendants.
They’re difficult to breed in captivity, and due to declining populations in the wild (are you sensing a trend yet?), the Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the forefront of research efforts. In fact, in Spring 2018, researchers successfully bred some of the first baby nautiluses in captivity.
Babirusas are just like your everyday slightly irritable pig — except for the fact that males have gigantic tusks that grow upwards right through their snouts and curve back towards their heads. In fact, if unchecked for long enough, the tusks can pierce their foreheads. The lower tusks of babirusas grow upwards as well, making the animal look somewhat like a pig version of an orc.
Babirusa are old enough to appear on Indonesian cave paintings some 35,000 years ago. Today, there are several tour operators offering babirusa-watching safaris in the Nantu Forest and Tangkoko Nature Reserve in Indonesia.
Like babirusas, tapirs also resemble pigs except for one key feature: a short, elephant-like proboscis that they use for roping food into their mouths. Tapirs also use their long snouts as snorkels while walking around underwater, one of their favorite pastimes.
While tapirs look rather porcine, they’re actually more closely related to horses and rhinoceroses. In fact, tapirs have a long, proud history in the fossil record, having first evolved in the Miocene epoch, as late as 23 million years ago. They’ve evolved into numerous species since then, although today there are only five remaining tapir species left across Asia, Central and South America.
One of the best places to see wild tapirs in the Americas is at Corcovado National Park in breathtaking Costa Rica. They can also be found throughout the Amazon rainforest — keep your eyes peeled!
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