Nearly 100 years ago, Mongolia made it illegal to own or export objects of cultural importance, such as dinosaur fossils. These bones were among a hoard of illegally obtained dinosaur skeletons seized by U.S. authorities.
Aug. 30, 2011 --
Evolution and natural selection have played a role in the ever-changing landscape of plants, animals, bacteria and fungi. Although species evolve as they find their niche and adapt to new opportunities, some animals have remained relatively unchanged over the course of history. These animals are known as living fossils. Compared to the animals on this list, humans are relative newcomers to this planet. Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa a mere 200,000 years ago. Many living fossils are considerably older than humans and other mammals; some have even outlasted the dinosaurs. In this slideshow, take an up-close look at animals that have persevered virtually unchanged through the ages and continue to thrive today. We begin with the platypus, an unusual egg-laying animal with fur, a bill and a venomous bite. Charles Darwin himself coined the term "living fossil" while observing the platypus. Native to eastern Australia, the animal is the only surviving example of its family, Ornithorhynchidae. This group of animals is believed to have split from mammals some 166 million years ago.
The horseshoe crab could hold the distinction of being the oldest animal species still in existence. Dating back to the Paleozoic era, the horseshoe crab existed on Earth before the dinosaurs and soldiered on through several mass extinction events. In 2008, a horseshoe crab fossil, the oldest in existence found so far, dated back to around 445 million years ago, according to a report by LiveScience.
The tadpole shrimp, Triops cancriformis, is another contender for the title of oldest living animal species. This shrimp is related to the horseshoe crab so its longevity should come as no surprise. According to a report by The Telegraph, the tadpole shrimp as it appears today is virtually identical to a fossil of a specimen that lived some 200 million years ago just as dinosaurs rose to prominence. Despite the animal's remarkable endurance, the tadpole shrimp is currently listed as an endangered species.
Once thought to be extinct in the same event that killed off the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, the coelacanth is a lobe-finned fish that sparked a debate over whether this species represented a missing link between aquatic animals and four-legged terrestrial creatures, according to National Geographic. The animal was rediscovered in 1938 and only two species of coelacanth still exist today. In 2007, a fossilized coelacanth fin was found dating back roughly 400 million years.
Snapping turtles as we know them first walked the earth some 40 million years ago, but they have been virtually unchanged over the past 215 million years of their evolution, according to Tortoise Trust. Although not among the most endangered tortoises and turtles according to the Turtle Conservation Coalition, the snapping turtle is listed as threatened.
The more than 20 species of alligators and crocodiles living today have evolved beyond their more primitive ancestors. But the basic physical design of these reptiles has remained essentially the same for the past 320 million years or so. Alligators and crocodiles share a common ancestry, though the two groups separated from each other some 60 million years ago.
The nautilus is the most primitive cephalopod in existence, a group that includes the most complex squid and octopus. Dating back to more than half a billion years ago, the nautilus reached the high point in its evolution during the Paleozoic era about 505 million to 408 million years ago. Several species of nautilus still survive today -- relatively unchanged from their ancestral counterparts.
Goblin sharks are rare, deep-sea dwellers with a unique elongated nose that distinguishes them from other sharks. They're also ancient, and are between 112 million to 124 million years old as a species. Around 2,000 different species of fossil sharks have been discovered, according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. The earliest sharks predate the dinosaurs by more than 200 million years.
The cockroach is famous for being a survivor. These insects can survive for weeks without their heads and even withstand the fallout following a nuclear blast. Cockroaches are also an especially long-surviving animal. Roaches have thrived on Earth for some 320 million years, with an estimated 5 million to 10 million individual species ranging in shape, size and habitat. This photo shows Blaberus giganteus, one of the largest species of cockroach on Earth.
Hagfish may have had to endure a less-than-flattering name since scientists first described them in the 18th century. However, these famously ugly marine animals have existed for about half a billion years. The hagfish also represents an important evolutionary step in the development of vision. These ancient fish may have been among the earliest animals to evolve more complex, camera-like eyes as opposed to the strictly photosensitive vision possessed by more primitive species. As such, the hagfish represents a kind of missing link in the evolution of the eye.
More than 18 dinosaur skeletons illegally taken from Mongolia were formally returned to their homeland last week, U.S. authorities announced.
The fossilized bones were handed over to Mongolian officials in a repatriation ceremony held July 10 in New York. "Today, we return a veritable nest of dinosaurs," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement after the ceremony.
"This is a historic event for the U.S. Attorney's Office, in addition to being a prehistoric event, and we are proud to participate in the return of these dinosaur skeletons to their rightful home," Bharara said. [Album: A Tarbosaurus Travels from Auction to Courtroom]
The road to repatriation began two years ago, in 2012, when an auction house in New York was offering a skeleton of a Tarbosaurus bataar — an Asian cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. Mongolian authorities voiced concern that the specimen had likely been smuggled into the United States. The 70-million-year-old dinosaur species was native to the Gobi desert in Asia, and to date, has only been found in modern-day Mongolia.
The Tarbosaurus sale attracted a bid of more than $1 million, but the suspicions of the Mongolian authorities sparked a long legal battle and federal investigation. U.S. authorities froze the sale, and after a lengthy custody battle, the specimen was returned to Mongolia in May 2013.
Eric Prokopi, a self-described commercial paleontologist who imported the dinosaur, pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he smuggled the skeleton and other fossils into the United States. In June, Prokopi was sentenced to three months in federal prison.
The other Mongolian fossils forfeited by Prokopi during the case were returned in the July 10 ceremony, including a second Tarbosaurus, oviraptors and skeletons of the duckbilled, plant-eating Saurolophus angustirostris.
Federal authorities also returned fossils that had been forfeited by Christopher Moore, a onetime business partner of Prokopi in the United Kingdom, including a third Tarbosaurus, skeletons of a rooster-like Gallimimus dinosaur and a nest of fossilized eggs, all looted from Mongolia.
"The fossils returned today do not belong in the hands of any private collection or one owner," James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York, said in a statement. "They belong to the people of Mongolia where they will be displayed in their national museum alongside the Bataar ICE repatriated last year. HSI will not allow the illicit greed of some to trump the cultural history of an entire nation."
The Mongolian government made it illegal in 1924 to own or export items of cultural significance, including dinosaur fossils.
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