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May 17

Coelacanth: The Fish That Time Forgot

On 22 December 1938, Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, the museum curator of East London in South Africa, got an early Christmas present. She was friends with the captain of a local trawler, Hendrick Goosen, and on this particular day she found among his haul a most unusual and prehistoric-looking fish. Though she did not know what it was, Marjorie felt sure that it was very important and she wanted it for her museum.

Marjorie soon found herself trying to overcome a series of unfortunate events, the likes of which you might expect to find in a sitcom. The day was very hot and Marjorie needed to preserve the fish before it rotted away, so she took it to the morgue. But the morgue refused to help her, no matter how interesting she insisted the specimen might have been – they dealt with humans, not fish. She tried to fit it in her bath, but the fish was too big for it. In her desperation, Marjorie drenched some clothes in formalin and wrapped them around the fish in an attempt to embalm it. Even so, the animal’s innards had rotted so much by this point that on Boxing Day she had to have the fish skinned, gutted and stuffed.

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Replica of a coelacanth. Photo: Citron

After a panic-stricken few days (and now possessing, in effect, half a fish), Marjorie contacted a friend of hers, an ichthyologist (fish expert) called James Smith. She sent him a letter and a rough sketch of the fish. Smith was astounded by what he saw and quickly sent a telegram back to Marjorie, telling her to preserve what remained of the fish.

Back from the Dead

As James Smith could easily tell, this fish was quite clearly a coelacanth. What made it so amazing was that, until now, the coelacanth had been known only from fossil record and was thought to have gone extinct around 70 million years ago. It was a obviously a relic from a bygone age, which had somehow managed to survive virtually unchanged at the bottom of the ocean. Smith gave the coelacanth the scientific name Latimeria chalumnae, after Courtney-Latimer herself and the Chalumna River near to which it was found.

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Fossilised coelacanth. Photo: Ghedoghedo

But if there is one thing that history has taught us with regards to strange and newly-discovered animals, it’s that people rarely believe that they are real (the platypus, anyone?). The coelacanth was no different: many people dismissed it as a hoax and decided that a living specimen was needed to prove that it existed. A bounty of £100 was offered to the person who found a live coelacanth and so the search began.

Fourteen years later, another specimen was found, in the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean. This time, it was captured alive. This proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the coelacanth was real and almost indiscernible from long-dead animals known only from ancient fossils. Of course, local people had known about the coelacanth for a very long time and were puzzled as to why scientists would want to pay so much money for the nearly inedible fish that their fishermen sometimes caught in their nets by mistake.

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Preserved specimen. Photo: Don Hurlburt/Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The coelacanth is one of the best-known ‘living fossils’. This term is used to describe any species that appears to be the same, or at least very similar, to a species otherwise known only from fossils, and which has no close living relatives. Living fossils are usually the last living examples of a slice of life was that once very diverse but are now almost completely extinct.

I eagerly await the news that another new or supposedly extinct creature has been fished up from the deep sea somewhere or other. The discovery of a living coelacanth proved that if an animal isn’t edible or useful to humans in any way, it can remain hidden from our attention for a very long time indeed.

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