When you hear the term ‘prehistoric animals,’ you likely think of creatures that are long gone. Dinosaurs. Woolly mammoths. Saber-toothed tigers. But plenty of Ice Age creatures still exist—and you might just see some of them on your next trip!
Which Ancient Animals Are Still Alive Today?
Some of these creatures you’ve probably never heard of, others you might have chanced upon, and some might seem so common you’d never suspect they’re actually Ice Age animals that still roam our planet today. While this is in no way an exhaustive list, read on to meet a few of our favorite ancient animals.
Considered living fossils, nautilus are mollusks that have survived without much change for nearly 500 million years. Easily identified by their unique shell and size—along with the many tentacles emerging from the shell, which they use to capture prey—nautilus are mostly found in Indonesia and Australia.
Sought after internationally for their shells, which are used in jewelry and home décor, there have been efforts to restrict further harm to the species and increase nautilus numbers by levying fines and deeming these creatures a protected species.
You’ve likely heard of and perhaps even seen a horseshoe crab, but did you know that these creatures are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to crustaceans? Fossil records show they existed for more than 445 million years, and one look at them certainly gives the impression they’ve been around a long time!
Found in North America and parts of Southeast Asia, horseshoe crabs are threatened by overharvesting for human consumption in some parts of the world. They are also used as fishing bait and in some scientific research, and they are subject to habitat loss.
New Zealand is pretty much your only bet if you want to chance upon a tuatara, a lizard-like animal that records indicate has existed for about 200 million years. Its skin ranges from green to gray to brown and is marked by a crest of spines going all the way down its back, right to the tip of its tail. The tuatara’s most unique feature is a third eye that typically gets covered as it approaches adulthood. Another unique feature (if you can get close enough to one to notice it) is two rows of teeth in the upper jaw and only one row in the lower jaw. The lower teeth fit snugly between the upper rows when the tuatara closes its mouth.
Considering you can observe sandhill crane migrations every year in Nebraska’s Platte River region, the notion that this could be a prehistoric animal might be hard to imagine. But these elegant birds, known for their loud, trumpeting calls and the fact that they mate for life, date back more than 10 million years. What’s more, they appear to have remained structurally the same through all that time.
Sandhill cranes also live in Siberia, Canada and other parts of the U.S., including Alaska, New Mexico, Texas, and the Southeast. There are a few subspecies, some of which are critically endangered due to habitat loss, wetland loss and development. See (and hear!) them on our Yellowstone and Alaska summer departures.
Also found in Alaska is another ancient animal: the muskox. There’s no way you can miss its distinct, long-haired figure with a hump at the shoulder and long, curved horns. Although the species is native to the state, they disappeared by the 1920s and had to be reintroduced in the 1930s via the relocation of muskox from Greenland. These Ice Age animals are known to have existed around 600,000 years ago. Now, you can also find them in Canada, Russia, Norway and Siberia.
Interestingly, muskoxen are more closely related to sheep and goats than to ox. They get their name from the strong, musky odor they produce during mating season to attract females. Muskox can live for up to 20 years in the wild and weigh anywhere between 400 and 900 pounds.
One of the first stops on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari is the Large Animal Research Station (LARS) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The 134-acre homestead site was deeded to the university in 1963 to further the establishment of a domestic muskox herd. LARS has conducted in-depth research on muskox reproduction, feeding habits and behavior, and it offers seasonal tours for visitors to its campus farm.
Today, there are estimated to be about 4,000 muskox in Alaska, and approximately 100,000 worldwide. With a stable population, they are not considered endangered, but there is legislation in place to protect the species in most areas where they are found.
Modern Threats to Ancient Animals
Climate change and the increase in human activity are threats to the survival of muskox and many of the other prehistoric species we are lucky to still find in the wild.
For instance, overhunting once resulted in muskox going extinct in Alaska, and there are still parts of the world where muskox is consumed or killed for its fur, hide and horns. Hunting opportunities are also available in many areas, even if at a higher price tag than deer and caribou.
Extreme winter conditions caused by climate change sometimes pose an obstacle to muskox as they try to reach their feeding grounds. These herbivores feed primarily on moss, grass, willows and other hardy plants that grow in the cold Arctic weather. Warmer temperatures also mean a higher risk of infestation and diseases caused by parasites.
Destruction of habitat is another issue, and one that particularly affects sandhill cranes.
Protecting the spaces in which these Ice Age animals live is one of the best ways to help increase or maintain their numbers. Supporting wildlife organizations or animal sanctuaries that provide refuge to such ancient animals, learning more about them, and spreading awareness of their existence are more ways to help ensure they continue to thrive. And, when you travel with Nat Hab, you can be confident that you’re helping conserve wild places for animals old and new!