Author: Evan Pascual
In the 1993 blockbuster film Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) expresses his skepticism of the scientists’ plan to control dinosaur populations within the park, arguing that humans cannot control the course of nature. He simply states, “Life finds a way.” Despite the film’s fictional setting, the statement holds truth: nature often survives against the odds.
About 66 million years ago, Earth experienced the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) Event, a sudden, mass extinction that wiped out nearly 75% of the world’s known species. Despite these massive casualties, many of Earth’s prehistoric organisms found a way to survive, evolve, and live among us today.
Sharks have inhabited Earth’s ocean for over 450 million years before the age of dinosaurs. They are one of the most prolific evolution success stories, surviving every known mass extinction. Paleontologists have long believed that today’s great white sharks are descendants of the c. megalodon, however, a newly described shark species, Carcharodon hubbelli, suggests that great white sharks are actually descendants of prehistoric broad toothed mako sharks. Great white shark sightings are rare in Hawaii, but they do enter Hawaiian waters when they travel from California to the mid-Pacific in the winter and upon their return to California in the summer.
These ancient mariners are one of the oldest reptiles on Earth whose origin dates back over 220 million years ago. Today, there are seven species of sea turtles of which five are known to frequent Hawaii’s waters: Hawaiian green, hawksbill, loggerhead, olive ridley, and leatherback sea turtles. Several 80-million-year-old fossils found in Alabama are believed to be of the earliest ancestors of the modern sea turtle, providing insight into the evolution of Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and green sea turtles.
Regarded as a “living fossil”, the nautilus has largely remained unchanged for the past 500 million years. Marine life found in deep water habitats, like the nautilus, are typically less affected by environmental changes. Its hard shell, a lifespan of up to 100 years, and ability to constrain metabolism also contributed to its survival. While these fascinating creatures have survived Earth’s extinction periods, only six species of nautilus exist today – and they are in decline. Humans harvest nautilus for their beautiful shells which are used in jewelry. Nautiluses are not found in Hawaii.
Echinoderms: Sea Stars, Urchins, and Sea Cucumbers
While oceanic behemoths like the plesiosaurs and mosasaurs have gone extinct, bottom-dwelling sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers made it through the K-T Event rather unscathed. They continue to inhabit marine environments around the world, including Maui Ocean Center’s Tide Pool exhibit!
Last but not least, coral reefs have historically been an essential provider for life in the sea. They are the oldest, complex living ecosystems on Earth. Deep-sea corals off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands are estimated to be over 4,000 years old and may be the oldest living marine organism known to man. The earliest forms of corals developed 400 million years ago with most modern corals evolving over the last 10,000 years following the last Ice Age.