When you hear the words ‘prehistoric creatures,’ you likely think of huge dinosaurs roaming the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. All of them have died off without any proper living ancestor, but the same cannot be said for the creatures that lurked within the ocean depths. Millions of years later there still exists “living fossils” – creatures that have survived the Ice Age and continue to swim both lake and sea to this day.
In honor of those fish species that can keep on, keepin’ on, here are the top 10 most amazing prehistoric fish still alive today.
Hagfish often top the list of ocean’s most disgusting creatures, and it certainly does for this list of prehistoric creatures. Hagfish have been around for over 500 million years, long before the dinosaurs ruled the planet. For all those years, hagfish – also called slime eel – have been grossing out the deep blue with its bizarre feeding habits and defense mechanisms. First off, they produce large amounts of slimy coating that when mixed with water, transforms into a rather sticky goo. When held or caught, hagfish use their slime as a way to ward off predators. Perhaps even more disgusting, however, is how they feed. They first attach themselves to their prey like a leech, tear off some flesh, then proceed to eat the victim from the inside out. Not exactly a great example for polite table manners.
While they don’t have the long history of hagfish, Lancetfish just looks like something from the Mesozoic Era (250-65 million years ago). Measuring six-and-a-half feet in length, distinguishing characteristics include six fang-like teeth, a long stream-lined body, and an abnormally large dorsal fin. In many respects, it looks like the offspring of an barracuda and sailfish, mixed in with an eel. They are found in all oceans except the polar regions, and are often caught by accident by commercial fisheries when long-lining for tuna.
Alive since the age of T-Rex’s and raptors back in the Cretaceous Period, the frilled shark – so named for its oddly shaped gills – looks more like a big snake with fins than a shark. Nicknamed a living fossil due to its unchanging appearance over millions of years, the frilled shark can grow up to six-and-a-half feet in length and has been known to swim at depths of over 5,000 feet. Like the lancetfish, frilled sharks have been caught by accident by commercial fishing boats, although much more rarely. Few frilled sharks are seen alive due to its preference for deeper waters.
Anglers everywhere shouldn’t be too surprised to see sturgeon on this list, what with their prehistoric face and body shape and unusually large size among certain species. Sturgeons are one of the oldest bonefish families, having been around for over 200 million years. Due to lack of predators, abundance of food, and tolerance for wide ranges of temperature and salinity, sturgeons have undergone little evolutionary changes over the years. Want to catch the biggest sturgeon possible? You’ll have to head to Fraser River in British Columbia for specimens that’ll grow over 12 feet in length!
Here’s another one for the anglers, the alligator gar, North America’s largest fish found exclusively in fresh water, which can grow to lengths of 10 feet. Their long snout of sharp teeth is what gives this gar its name, and if you combine that with their thick scales and size, it’s easy to see why this fish has been around for millions of years. In addition, the alligator gar is known for its ability to survive outside of water, sometimes as long as two hours. Fortunately for us, alligator gars have no ability to walk around on land, a good thing considering they have been known to bite human swimmers.
The sawfish is named for its rostrum (snout), which serves as a tool to dig up crustaceans from the ocean floor, defend itself against predators, and stun prey. The rostrum is also covered with motion and electro-sensitive pores, allowing it to detect movement and even heartbeats of prey. A survivor since the Cretaceous Period, the sawfish is now a critically endangered species due in large part to human interference – its rostrum is prized by trophy hunters and its fins are seen as a delicacy in some countries. Until the illegal fin soup industry can finally be reined in, this prehistoric survivor may go extinct.
The coelacanth is the prototypical living fossil, and therefore most talked about species concerning this subject. Known to have first lived over 350 million years ago, the coelacanth was thought to have been extinct until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Since then, other specimens have been discovered, primarily around the east coast of Africa and scattered elsewhere across the Indian Ocean. This mysterious fish is so rare that there’s no concrete evidence to indicate its total population, though they are listed as Critically Endangered.
Arapaima are one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, getting to weights of over 400 pounds, though that is becoming increasingly rarer in the wild. They are native to South American tropical waters, primarily the Amazon River. The arapaima is valued as an exotic catch-and-release fishery, and is illegal for harvesting in Brazil due to dwindling populations. The fish breathes air as opposed to sucking oxygen through the water, a useful advantage in the often murky waters of the Amazon.
Between the three freshwater fish alive today that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (sturgeon and gar being the other two), the bowfin is by far the least desirable target for anglers. In fact, this historic fish is often reviled by anglers and put into the infamous category of “trash fish” as they are not a good tasting fish and have such a voracious appetite that they can threaten the food supply of other fish species. They are given its name due to a rather long dorsal fin, which can consist of as many as 250 rays.
The goblin shark looks like a creature straight out of someone’s worst nightmare. The most defining characteristic is its long, trowel-shaped snout, an electro-sensitive organ used to replace sight as this shark tends to swim at depths thousands of feet deep. Growing to a length of up to 14 feet, the bizarre-level increases even more as their skin is not the typical grey color seen with other sharks, and is a more pinkish-hue instead. The most frightening aspect of this prehistoric-looking fish? Its jaws protrude from its face when biting its prey, compensating for its long snout, reminiscent of the creature from Alien.