Back from the dead: The Survivor

On 23 December 1938, a group of fishermen headed by local angler, Captain Hendrick Goosen, caught up a rare, bizarre, metallic-blue colored fish with large, thick scales and strong, fleshy fins. It was described to have a length of almost 5 feet!

When the catch was landed, the curious fish caught the attention of Dr Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was the curator of East London Museum at that time. Although she didn’t exactly know what it was, the moment she had laid her eyes on the fish was when she was convinced that there was definitely something exceptional about the fish.

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Dr. Marjorie Courtenay Latimer and Coelacanth

So what she did was send a rough sketch of the fish to a Rhodes University ichthyologist  J.L.B. Smith. Ichthyology is the scientific study of different aspects of various fish species, including history, behavior, growth patterns, and their place in the ecosystems. He was an organic chemist, but was also well known to be an eminent amateur fish expert.

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image source: https://nature.ca/discover/treasures/anim/tr3/popups/poptrssketch_f.cfm

Smith, who was on vacation, was able to identify the fish from that sketch alone. It was a coelacanth, which is now called Latimeria chalumnae. As you must have figured it out, the scientific name is in honor of Dr Courtenay Latimer.

He also confirmed the fish’s importance with a famous cable: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED”.

My surprise would have been little greater if I had seen a dinosaur walking down the street!

-Professor J. L. B. Smith

His reaction however is an understatment, for hitherto the fish had been known only as a fossil in rocks 400 million years old-200 million years older than the dinosaurs. Its discovery 66 million years after it was widely believed to have gone extinct makes the coelacanth the best-known example of a Lazarus taxon, an evolutionary line that seems to have disappeared from the fossil record only to reappear much later.

This was the first of the Latimeria specimen found alive off the east coast of South Africa, off the Chalumna River (now Tyolomnqa). Since then, various other specimens have been found in the Comoros, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, and in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa.

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With hearts more primitive than those of any other vertebrate, brains only 1/15,000th of their body weight and now a rare order of fish, the coelacanth truly belong to the era when the world was young.

 

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