Living Fossils

Alligators became alligators long before the dinosaur extinction and haven’t changed their winning design significantly since then.

Now that I am on Social Security, my kids consider me a living fossil. Well, actually, they have thought that for a long time. My youngest son delights in calling me, “Old Man”, a title I smugly know he will carry one day.

In reality though, I am not a fossil, living or otherwise. Some scientists consider living fossils to be failures, forced into evolutionary blind alleys from which there is no escape or progress. However, if you have ever stared into the eyes of a crocodile or alligator, you realize just how false this is. There isn’t a dead-end there, but perfection reached 100 million years ago with little need for further adaptation. They aren’t going to rule the planet, but should one of those said rulers wander into their world, they might find just how perfectly attuned these killing machines are.

So, living fossil is not a derogatory term at all. It delineates species that made it to the peak of their evolution millions of years ago and haven’t had a significant reason to change. That means that the living species and the fossil species are recognizable as the same species despite the millions of years that separate them. They are so successful that they continue to weather the tests of time as the environment changes around them. In a word, they reached perfection and saw no reason to improve upon it.

The definition of living fossil is, “an organism that has remained the same form over millions of years, has few or no living relatives, and represents a sole surviving lineage from an epoch long past.” They sit at the very end of their branch in the evolutionary tree often as the only member of their genus (occasionally there may be two), but sometimes an entire order. They may have unusual traits that are unknown in other living things but are represented in the fossil record.

There are many species of organisms that have not improved upon their design in millions of years. Possibly every life form from cyanobacteria to mammals include living fossil species. Some of the more commonly thought of species include all the crocodilia, coelacanths—two species of fish from a large order thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago (until re-discovered in 1938), horseshoe crabs, nautiluses, half a dozen shark species, pig-nosed turtles, snapping turtles, pelicans, sandhill cranes, spectacled bears and mountain beavers to name a few in the animal kingdom. Plants include the gingko tree, ferns and mosses.

The term, living fossil, as defined and used, infers that the evolutionary process has completely stopped. This has caused heated debate among scientists with some calling for the retirement of the term, living fossil, altogether. Most scientists recognize however, that genetic fine-tuning is always occurring even in these species. One author compared it to a car with a successful body style. There may not be much change on the outside, but each year there are upgrades such as electric windows, more efficient engines, GPS, and more. These changes are “under the hood” and don’t modify the overall design.

I like the concept of living fossils though. To think that an organism, the basic form of which was created millions of years ago, can still make a living today is satisfying. I doubt anything humans create will stand that test of time.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.