Back From the Dead: The Story of the Coelacanth

In 1938, a type of fish that had been thought to be extinct since the time of the dinosaurs turned up alive on a fishing boat in South Africa . . .

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Preserved Coelacanth on display at the British Museum of Natural History.

Two days before Christmas in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, the curator of the tiny East London Museum, in a small fishing village near Cape Town, South Africa, was busy mounting some reptile specimens for display when she received a phone call. Trained as a nurse with no formal scientific education, Latimer nevertheless had a lifelong interest in South African wildlife and was familiar with the local species. One of her friends in town was Captain Hendrick Goosen of the fishing boat Nerine, and whenever the Nerine returned to port, Latimer was invited to come look over the catch and keep any interesting specimens that she wanted for the museum. Captain Goosen was on the phone now–he had an unusual fish he wanted her to see.

At the dock, Latimer later recalled, “I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was five foot long, a pale mauve blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail.” She packed the fish into a taxi and took it back to the museum.

The museum director, after a brief look, dismissed the fish as a common rock cod, but Latimer, after poring over some books, was unable to identify it. She did notice that the fish had odd fins with fleshy skeletal projections, almost like miniature limbs. Puzzled, she mailed a description and a rough drawing to an acquaintance, Professor James LB Smith at nearby Rhodes University, hoping he could help identify it. In the meantime, Latimer looked around for a way to preserve the unusual fish before it rotted in the South African heat. The tiny little museum did not have any freezer facilities or equipment for preservation. Latimer took the fish to the local morgue to try to have it preserved in formaldehyde, but the morticians refused. In desperation, Latimer then had a local taxidermist gut the fish and mount the skin.

Professor Smith, meanwhile, had been away on Christmas holiday, and when he returned to Rhodes University on January 2 he found Latimer’s letter and drawing waiting for him–and was utterly flabbergasted. The description seemed to match that of a coelacanth–an enormously important fish that had been extinct for 65 million years.

The coelacanths, along with the lungfishes, were members of the “lobe finned fishes”, a group that had flourished in the Devonian period some 385 million years ago. According to the fossil record, some freshwater members of the lobe-finned fishes used their odd bony fins as limbs, to scuttle about in shallow water, and also had lungs enabling them to breath air at the surface. Over time, the lobe-finned fishes had developed true legs, emerged from the water onto land, and evolved into terrestrial amphibians, beginning the long history of life on land that led to reptiles, mammals and eventually humans. The coelacanths disappeared from the fossil record at around the same time the dinosaurs did, and it was presumed they had also become extinct. Yet here in January 1939, Professor Smith was looking at an unmistakable sketch of a lobe-finned coelacanth that had apparently been captured alive just a few days before. He could not have been more shocked if someone had sent him a photo of a living Tyrannosaurus.

Smith immediately sent Latimer a frantic cable: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED” (too late–the internal organs had already been discarded by the taxidermist and only the mounted skin remained), and made arrangements to get to the village of East London. When he finally arrived on February 16, 1939, he immediately identified the mounted skin as that of a coelacanth. A local newspaper reporter took a photo of the “living fossil” that went around the world and caused an international sensation. Smith named the new species Latimeria chalumnae. When it was given a special one-day exhibition at the museum, 20,000 people crowded in to see it.

Anxious to obtain another complete specimen, Smith offered a reward of 100 British pounds to anyone who caught another coelacanth, and posters depicting the fish were plastered up in fishing villages all along the coast from South Africa to Kenya. Smith waited for a new specimen to appear.  And waited.  And waited.

On December 21, 1952, fourteen years after Latimer’s find, two local fishermen approached British fishing boat captain Eric Hunt on the Cormoros Islands, a French possession between Africa and Madagascar. They had been fishing with a handline when they caught a large fish known locally as a “gombessa”–and had noticed that it looked like the fish for which the reward was being offered. There in the fishermen’s arms was another coelacanth. Hunt packed the fish in salt to preserve it, paid the fishermen their reward, and contacted Smith in South Africa.

Since that time, coelacanth populations have been found at several other spots along the east coast of Africa. And in 1998, scientists were surprised when a second species of living coelacanth, dubbed Latimeria menadoensis, was found in Indonesia–it had first been photographed in a village fish market. Since then populations have been found near several Indonesian islands.

The coelacanths are now being extensively studied. The fish’s complete DNA has been sequenced, and expeditions have filmed the living fish in their natural habitats–they prefer deep underwater canyons. Anatomical and genetic analysis have shown that the coelacanths are in fact not in the direct line to the amphibians and other terrestrial tetrapods (the lungfishes are closer to amphibians than the coelacanths are), but study of the coelacanth’s anatomy and lifestyle have given hints about how and why the transition from sea life to land life happened, almost 400 million years ago.

Today, the two species of coelacanth are listed as “critically endangered” and are made available for museum collections only by special permit.

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