Travel & Places Africa & Middle East

The Coelacanth - A Fish Out of Time

There are a few people I know that I might like to term a 'living fossil' but that would be unkind! When it comes to the coelacanth however it is the literal truth. One of the oldest species on the planet, it is thought to have evolved around 400 million years ago. For a very long time, it was known only through fossil evidence and was thought to have died out again around 300 million years so.

All that changed on 23rd December 1938 in East London, South Africa, when a local fisherman, Captain Hendrick Goosen of the trawler, Nerine, landed a very peculiar looking fish.

Local museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, used to check his nets routinely just in case he landed anything interesting and she soon realized that she'd found something she'd never seen before.
According to Marjorie, it was "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings." She had no idea what it was but rapidly came to the conclusion that it resembled a prehistoric fish. She needed help and sent a sketch to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a chemist with a passionate interest in fish, at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
When Professor Smith eventually arrived in East London on 16 February, 1939, he identified it as a coelacanth. The spot where Goosen docked on the Chalumna River is now known as Latimer's Landing. The fish was eventually given the Latin tag Latimeria chalumnae. The news went global and on the one day that it was displayed to the public, 20,000 people turned up to the viewing.

The hunt for a second specimen
Smith immediately posted a reward for a second specimen and fishermen across the Indian Ocean began the hunt.

Coincidentally, it was a Captain Eric Hunt who solved the puzzle 14 years later, on 21 Dec 1952, when some Comoro fishermen brought him a 'gomessa' caught on a handline. It was a coelacanth. Hunt cabled JLB Smith, salted the fish and injected its organs with formalin to preserve it. Meantime, the local French authorities also got involved and the race for control of the specimen began.
Smith begged a plane from the South African Prime Minister in his efforts to get there first and secure the fish. It was this second coelacanth that allowed a full study to be made. JLB Smith eventually published the story in 1956 in a book 'Old Fourlegs'. However, the French never really recovered from having 'their' fish snatched from under their noses and refused permission to all non-French researchers right up until the islands' independence in the 1970s!

Ongoing research
In spite of this work has continued. In 1987, a submersible crew finally managed to obtain film footage of live coelacanths. They discovered not only that they have odd fin action but they stand on their heads. The blue and silver splodgy livery provides excellent camouflage in the underwater cave homes covered in sponges and oysters that they prefer.

Specimens have since been caught in Mozambique in 1991, Madagascar in 1995, South Africa 2000, Kenya, 2001, and Tanzania/Zanzibar 2003. A single fish caught in Indonesia in 1997-8 has been declared to be a new species, Latimeria menadoensis. In 2009, a Japanese team filmed a living juvenile in Indonesia.

So why all the fuss?
The coelacanth was first described in 1836 by Louis Agassiz and caused much discussion from the word-go as it seemed to be a 'missing link' between fish and reptiles. Whether this is in fact true - it is a 'living dinosaur'. Growing up to 1.8m (6 ft) long, they have eight fins altogether with hollow spines (the literal meaning of the word 'coelacanth'). The second pair of side fins were initially thought to be proto-legs, but are actually used, both pairs together, in a weird whirring action, to help when hovering. They have large eyes and small mouths which are hinged so that they can open extremely wide. Only 1.5% of their brain cavity is used by the brain - the rest is full of fat.
To date, only two species have been identified and they are distinct from all other species of fish. Sightings are rare and the fish are on the CITES endangered species list. There are furious arguments about whether any further individuals should be captured for study or for aquaria. Jealousies between research teams still erupt.
More information, the original drawings, and casts of the coelacanth are displayed in the excellent East London Museum (319 Oxford Street (Entrance from Dawson Road), ?Southernwood,?East London; tel: +27 43 743 0686).

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