Rethinking living fossils

Scott Lidgard, Alan C. Love

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Biologists would be mistaken if they relegated living fossils to paleontological inquiry or assumed that the concept is dead. It is now used to describe entities ranging from viruses to higher taxa, despite recent warnings of misleading inferences. Current work on character evolution illustrates how analyzing living fossils and stasis in terms of parts (characters) and wholes (e.g., organisms and lineages) advances our understanding of prolonged stasis at many hierarchical levels. Instead of viewing the concept’s task as categorizing living fossils, we show how its primary role is to mark out what is in need of explanation, accounting for the persistence of both molecular and morphological traits. Rethinking different conceptions of living fossils as specific hypotheses reveals novel avenues for research that integrate phylogenetics, ecological and evolutionary modeling, and evo-devo to produce a more unified theoretical outlook.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)760-770
Number of pages11
Issue number10
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Comments from Lee-Hsiang Liow, Jeremiah Smith, and Peter Wagner improved the manuscript, as did images from Klaus-Peter Kelber, Roger Key, and James Lamsdell, and drafting by Monica Jurik. We are grateful to all. ACL’s research was supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation (“From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics,” grant no. 50191). The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the John Templeton Foundation.


  • Character evolution
  • Concepts
  • Evolutionary rates
  • Living fossil
  • Stasis

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article

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