The 15 Cutest Living Fossils

The term “living fossil” has been used to describe creatures that retain primitive features, have remained unchanged for millions of years, or are members of species-poor taxa. Many of which, incidentally, are unbearably cute. Here are the most adorable of the lot presented in no particular order.

1. New Zealand Rock Wrens

New Zealand Rock Wrens (Xenicus gilviventris) are the rarer of the two extant species in the family Acanthisittidae. Unike true wrens, they are exceptionally poor fliers, having evolved in an area without predatory mammals for millions of years. They nonetheless survived the introduction of Polynesian rats (500 CE) and humans (1300 CE) to New Zealand, making them tenacious little birdies in addition to being living fossils. Their stubby tails and bouncy disposition only serves to enhance their adorable, ball-like appearance. Which, by the way, is why they made this list.

2. Monito del Montes

Spanish for “little mountain monkey,” the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) is a diminutive marsupial notable for being the only extant member of the ancient taxonomic order Microbiotheria, as well as the only member of the superorder Australidelphia that is indigenous to the Americas. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t marsupials native to North and South America. Virginia opossums and their ilk are simply members of a different taxon: Ameridelphia. Essentially, the monito del monte’s presence in southern Chile and Argentina raises important questions about the evolutionary history of marsupials. But if you’re thinking that the monito’s ancestors popped over here from Australia, you’re wrong. Scientists ultimately concluded that your favorite marsupials (koalas, kangaroos, etc.) had ancestors in South America millions of years ago that headed “down under” via Antarctica in a single dispersal event. Oh, and as for the cute thing? The monito del monte has a partially prehensile tail, which it WILL use to cling to your thumb, being just about thumb-sized. THUMB-SIZED, I tell you.

3. Okapis

Any creature that looks good in horizontal stripes has an automatic advantage when ranking cute animals. Looks like a zebra, doesn’t it? Well, the cloven-hoofed okapi (Okapia johnstoni) is more closely related to a giraffe than any modern equine. Okapis flew under Western scientists’ radar until the 20th century, when Harry Johnston obtained a skull and skin sufficient to identify it as a new species. Incidentally, the animals had been known to Africans for thousands of years before British colonialists “discovered” the creatures. Other ancient civilizations probably knew about okapis as well; an okapi-like creature appears in the carvings at Apadana, a 5th century BCE building at Persepolis.

4. Amami Rabbits

Amami rabbits (Pentalagus furnessi) only can be found on two tiny islands in Japan: Toku-no-Shima and Amami Ōshima, both of which are part of the Amami Island group that the bunnies are named for. These dark-furred rabbits retain a number of primitive features that distinguish them from modern rabbits: shorter ears and legs, bulkier bodies, small eyes, and large, curved claws. These rabbits once lived on the mainland, but their ancestors were wiped out. The surviving population (roughly 2000-5000 animals) persisted due to their isolated habitat. As for their inclusion on this list, I dare you to find a rabbit that isn’t 100% adorable.

5. Pygmy Hippos

Once upon a time hippos were considered to be most closely related to pigs, but recent genetic research has demonstrated they are actually related to whales! Hippos and whales seem to have had a common ancestor that existed roughly 60 million years ago. In any case, scientists believe this ancestry is probably why hippos spend a good deal of their time in the water. But of the surviving hippos, pygmy hippos (Choeropsis liberiensis) most resemble their ancient, semi-aquatic hippo ancestors (the technical term being the most “basal”), and for this reason, the oft rosy-cheeked cuties were included in this list. Well, technically the pink tint is from a secretion pygmy hippos use to protect their sensitive skin, but it’s still cute as hell, right?

6. Red Pandas

Red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) get their common name from their bamboo-laden diet, but in reality, are actually more closely related to raccoons than giant pandas. But despite sharing certain morphological characteristics, red pandas are not genetically similar enough to be placed in Procyonidae, the family encompassing all raccoon species. Scientists have therefore placed them in their own species-poor family, Ailuridae. Their closest living relative died out about 3-4 million years ago, meaning the delightful red pandas are literally in a (taxonomic) category of their own. And who can resist their smiles? (Try, I dare you.)

7. Tuataras

Tuataras (Sphenodon punctatus or Sphenodon guntheri) are kind of confusing because they look like lizards, but they’re not actually lizards. They are simply (and you’ll love this) “lizard-like” members of the order Rhynchocephalia. Tuataras have many features of primitive reptiles. For example, their lungs consist of a single chamber. They also have a third, or parietal eye, which is only visible in hatchlings. BUT: since it has a functioning lens, retina, cornea, etc., tuataras have the distinction of having the most pronounced parietal eye of all living four-footed creatures. And even though they don’t have any ears, there’s something undeniably Zen about their faces. C’mon, just look at this sweetheart.

8. Elephant Shrews

So here’s the funny thing about elephant shrews: they might look more like shrews than elephants, but they’re not true shrews. And hell, they actually are related to elephants. In the 1990s, genetic research prompted scientists to propose the clade Afrotheria, which included both elephant shrews and elephants (as well as other creatures like hyraxes, sea cows, and aardvarks). If you’re not into cladistics, this means these animals share a common ancestry. Anyway, elephant shrews would like you to know that they’re not mice with big noses or shrews or moles or anything weird like that; they’re just very old mammals that have been around in Africa for about 30 million years. I personally like to imagine the black and rufous elephant shrew (Rhynchocyon petersi) pictured above as a tiny woolly mammoth.

9. Duck-Billed Platypuses

We sometimes look at the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) and wonder what nature was thinking the day when she let evolution cook up this particular beast. In the past, scientists struggled with classifying it based on its physical appearance. And no wonder, since platypuses look like a mash up of otters, ducks, beavers, and a healthy dose of wtf. In reality, they’re creatures called monotremes, mammals that lay eggs. Platypuses wait for the eggs to hatch and then nurse their young with milk they excrete through pores in the skin. (Rather than you know, nipples, because a platypus with nipples might be too much for us to handle.) But it’s these basal mammalian characteristics make platypuses so interesting to scientists. Or maybe it’s the venom spurs on their feet? Well, whatever. They’re cute when they smile, right?

10. Hoatzins

Hoatzins (Opisthocomus hoazin) are big, beautiful South American birds that are born with an obvious genetic throwback: Hoatzin chicks have claws on their wings which provide them an extra degree of maneuverability before they’re able to fly. But if you think about the evolution of wings in general, this arm-like use of flight appendages is highly unusual and therefore very interesting if you’re trying to hash out how birds became, well, birds. The thing is, scientists are still arguing about Hoaztins’ evolutionary history so we’re not strictly sure how Hoatzins relate to other birds just yet, but I think we can all agree that they’re handsome fellows. I mean, my hair will never look as good as this guy’s fancy plumage.

11. Echidnas

Echidnas (family Tachyglossidae) are also monotremes like platypuses, so there’s no need to rehash the whole mammals-that-lay-eggs business in detail. Let’s just focus on how goddamned adorable this baby echidna is. LOOK AT THE TONGUE, YOU GUYS. JUST LOOK AT THE TONGUE.

12. Sumatran Rhinoceros

The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the only extant rhino belonging to the genus Dicerorhinus, and of the extant rhinos, is perhaps the most basal. That is to say, it most resembles its prehistoric ancestors from the Miocene. It’s also the smallest of the surviving rhinos, making it the cutest. Size is inversely proportional to cuteness according to all the mathematicians, you know.

13. Iriomote Cats

Iriomote cats (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) are a dark-furred, house-cat-sized subspecies of leopard cats that are endemic to a single island in Japan. Scientists don’t know too much about them because they weren’t discovered until the late 20th century and they estimate that there are only 100 of the cats left at this point. The few captive specimens scientists had suggest that Iriomote cats retain some very primitive skeletal features. For example, unlike the majority of living cats, Iriomote cats cannot retract their claws. As for being cute, they’re cats. Is the internet really going to argue with that?

14. Pig-Nosed Turtles

The pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta) is the only extant species of the genus Carettochelys, which is truly a goddamned shame, since it is always. so. happy. The thing is, pig-nosed turtles are not quite like any other living freshwater turtle. They have noses that look like a pig’s snout and flippers like sea turtles instead of webbed feet with individual digits. Unlike soft-shelled turtles (which also have snorkel-like noses) they have a bony carapace and developed plastron. Basically, they’re turtles that don’t know what they want out of life except to have a lot of fun. Probably with you, if you’re game. You’re game, right?

15. Chevrotains

Chevrotains (family Tragulidae) are commonly known as mouse deers, likely because the big-eyed ungulate looks like the illicit offspring of Minnie Mouse and Bambi. 34 million years ago during the Oligiocene these things were EVERYWHERE. And they’ve remained virtually unchanged since the Miocene, so it’s your own fault if you’ve never heard of chevrotains before. They’ve looked like this for 5 million years. Get with the program.

SUPER CUTE, RIGHT? Until this happens, anyway.

Seriously, those fangs. Don’t get TOO lost in their eyes, you guys, because they have fangs.

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