They warn of the need to protect “living fossils”: plants and animals that are millions of years old

The recently proposed concept of “living fossils that are threatened with extinction‘ (ELF) takes into account the critically endangered status and evolutionary uniqueness of all species of the world’s flora and fauna. Most of these animals and plants are millions of years old, but their end is near unless quick and effective measures are taken to preserve them.

This new evolutionary concept of ELF was proposed by the Royal Botanical Garden-CSIC two years ago, later accepted with interest by the scientific community and now reapplied by the CSIC Research Professor Pablo Vargas. Over the past two years, it has conducted a survey of exactly 3,706 genera containing a single vertebrate and angiosperm species to examine how many fossils are at risk of extinction. The study has just been published in the journal Limits in ecology and evolution.

Most of these animals and plants are millions of years old, but their end is near unless quick and effective action is taken.

Pablo Vargas explained that the review was carried out based on three criteria: “Scarcity and restricted distribution of populations, the highest threat category representing critical danger, and an ancient divergence of more than five million years.” Of the 3,706 genera examined, studies have show that 109 of these genera are threatened with extinction, of which 57 are ELEVEN.

Unique evolutionary heritage

Five ELF genera are among the most endangered plant species in Spain and Portugal: Hollow chicory, Castril daisy, Castaway, Gadoria and Nomevés. The RJB-CSIC researcher points out: “The most dramatic case is precisely the Nomevés, which, after more than 25 million years of existence, are on the verge of final extinction if the Autonomous Community of Madrid and Castile and Leon does not take action first.” Vargas warned.

Research has found that 109 of these genera are threatened with extinction, of which 57 living fossils were threatened with extinction.

In reviewing these thousands of genera, there is an additional push to prioritize the conservation of all ELF genera, as they are the most endangered lineages in the world and represent a unique evolutionary heritage equivalent to the most valuable paintings in any art gallery, some new patterns are proposed. According to Pablo Vargas, general-level taxonomy is a first reliable approach to identifying an ELF, and then an evolutionary singularity would be required, analyzed using genetic and phylogenetic data.

The genetic data They are important because the morphological characters of each genus correspond to a single species: “Firstly, it does not always help to identify ELF on islands such as the Canary Islands; Second, species in individual genera tend to be more at risk than the average species. Thirdly, the extinction appears to be due primarily to certain groups of animals and plants. and fourthly, the genera recently extinct by humans were found on remote islands,” explains the researcher.

Finally, Vargas says that “the ELF approach is a relatively quick method to iIdentify the types of flora and fauna that need to be protected with greater urgency in the world. This approach complements any scientific method that seeks phylogenetic diversity, for example EDGE and Threat Criteria (IUCN).”


Vargas, Pablo. Exploring “endangered living fossils” (ELFs) among monotypic plant and animal genera of the world“.RJB (2023).

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