Join 3,422 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The tale of the coelacanth
September 7, 2009 2:47 PM   Subscribe

The amazing story of the coelacanth is one of the wonders of the living world that inspires marine biologists such myself. Coelacanths, part of the offshoot lineage of fishes known as "lobed finned ", are very different from typical "ray finned" fishes that you usually think of. Their bizarre lobed fins are thought to be an intermediate step between fish fins and amphibian legs. Scientists had known that these weird fish existed because of fossils for over a century, but we believed that they went extinct 65 million years ago... until a South African fisherman caught one in 1938.

Though the fisherman didn't know exactly what he had caught, he knew that it was noteworthy enough to save and bring to the museum in his small fishing village of East London. The head of the museum was Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who contacted a famous South African fish biologist named J. L. B. Smith. Smith originally named the genus Malania after the South African prime minister who gave him money to search for more coelacanths, but since prime minister Malan was also the architect of apartheid, the name was eventually changed to Latimeria after the head of the East London Museum (the full scientific name is now Latimeria chalumnae, for the Chalum river where the fish was caught). Despite intensive searching and a large reward, it was almost 15 years before a second specimen was found.

We now know a little bit more about this fascinating species. They can grow to larger than six feet in length and can weight up to 200 pounds. They have rough scales unlike most other existing fish species. They have internal egg fertilization, but the eggs hatch inside the mother and the young are born alive. They usually live in the deep sea, over 2,000 feet below the surface. Most alarming of all is that scientists estimate a population of only around 1,000 individuals, making coelacanths one of the most endangered animals on Earth. They survived for tens of millions of years after the dinosaurs went extinct, but they now face extinction in our lifetimes.

I'll share with you a thought that keeps myself and other marine biologists going during times when the job seems rough... if it took us until 1938 to find the coelacanth, what else is down there?
posted by WhySharksMatter (49 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
And nerds race to post the relevant Achewood!

(Context, 2)
posted by thedaniel at 3:10 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Clickable coelacanth!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:14 PM on September 7, 2009


I would like to know more about the evolutionary context of coelocanths. That is, why did ray-finned fishes become so much more successful generally? And what is it about the modern coelacanth that allows it to be competitive in its current niche?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:21 PM on September 7, 2009


A coelacanth's miniscule brain occupies only 1.5 percent of its cranial cavity; the rest is filled with fat.

But that minuscule brain is intensely determined to achieve the step between fish fins and amphibian legs. Once that's worked out there will plenty of room for expansion, to work out the consequences.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:32 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll share with you a thought that keeps myself and other marine biologists going during times when the job seems rough... if it took us until 1938 to find the coelacanth, what else is down there?

more things in heaven & earth than is dreamt of... no?
posted by jammy at 3:48 PM on September 7, 2009


I'm not sure why, but I'be always connected coelacanths with some of the blind cave fish. A fast google didn't support that, but is there any connection?
posted by path at 3:50 PM on September 7, 2009


Is there an idea as to why they're facing extinction?
posted by cmonkey at 3:52 PM on September 7, 2009


more things in heaven & earth than is dreamt of... no?

I must say that my fascination with the plaster cast of the coelacanth in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh, is one of my earliest and most formative memories.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:56 PM on September 7, 2009


Wow, I knew they had lobed fins but I've never seen them in action before. That's amazing!
posted by furtive at 4:01 PM on September 7, 2009


Smith originally named the genus Malania after the South African prime minister who gave him money to search for more coelacanths, but since prime minister Malan was also the architect of apartheid, the name was eventually changed to Latimeria...

Can they do that? I thought once it was named that was it.

I'll share with you a thought that keeps myself and other marine biologists going during times when the job seems rough... if it took us until 1938 to find the coelacanth, what else is down there?

This is also the thought that keeps Ivan Sanderson's books selling (including to me [only not literally selling, since I get them at the library]).
posted by DU at 4:01 PM on September 7, 2009


> what else is down there?

I caught a Palaeoniscus just the other day. It was delicious.
posted by jfuller at 4:05 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's a thought that keeps myself and other pessimists miserable... if it took us until 1938 to find the coelacanth, what have we driven to extinction without even knowing about it?
posted by nowonmai at 4:10 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


nowonmai: "what have we driven to extinction without even knowing about it?"

Unicorns.
posted by idiopath at 4:14 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Man, I love catching coelacanths. They're even better than dorados.
posted by brina at 4:15 PM on September 7, 2009


I remember reading as a child a National Geographic magazine at my grandparents that was from the 1940s talking about the mysterious monster fish from a different eon.
posted by mrmojoflying at 4:30 PM on September 7, 2009


Cyclopean horrors, that's what!
posted by Windopaene at 4:36 PM on September 7, 2009


They can grow to larger than six feet in length and can weight up to 200 pounds.

RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:39 PM on September 7, 2009


paging...
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:11 PM on September 7, 2009


I blame Animal Crossing for ruining my notion of the rarity of the coelacanth. (Hint: they're not all that rare, but you're that excited every time you catch one.)
posted by filthy light thief at 5:12 PM on September 7, 2009


if it took us until 1938 to find the coelacanth, what else is down there?

As the kid who wrote her fifth grade biology paper on the coelacanth, I hope there are lots of terrific beasties there. I was really enjoying the recent BBC report on the whole set of new species they found in New Guinea including the wooly rat. Thanks for this post.
posted by jessamyn at 5:16 PM on September 7, 2009


This is kind of an awkward question, but how do you pronounce "coelacanth?"
posted by arcolz at 5:22 PM on September 7, 2009


One thing I remember from reading about coelacanths was that Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer deserves a lot of respect for being in the right place at the right time, recognising what she found, and coping with the skepticism that she subsequently received from the (male) scientific establishment.

arcolz, I understand it's pronounced ' SEE-la-canth '
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:32 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


well, in order to fully appreciate the saga of prehistoric fish, one must first play the vinyl 45 of the song Coelacanth by Shriekback at 33 rpm...

while relaxing with an old friend, who tells travel stories of camping out in old graveyards in the Middle East, and encountering a Black Mass...
posted by ovvl at 5:42 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


seal o'canth
posted by DU at 5:46 PM on September 7, 2009


I just wasted a good 15 minutes trying to find a VW commercial. Great day in the morning!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:57 PM on September 7, 2009


The Los Angeles Museum of Natural History has a coelacanth resting in a bath of preservatives. I have to go look at it and scream every time I visit.
posted by effluvia at 6:06 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


If a shark is not art, what about a coelacanth?
posted by localroger at 6:10 PM on September 7, 2009


Though the fisherman didn't know exactly what he had caught, he knew that it was noteworthy enough to save and bring to the museum in his small fishing village of East London.

I have to wonder how many great discoveries have been made by people who didn't indulge their curiosity and take that extra step.
posted by brundlefly at 6:13 PM on September 7, 2009


One of my least favorite pieces of creationist ignorance is the "if evolution happened why are there still monkeys" argument. I would appreciate it if one of them at least asked why there were coelacanths still around, for the variety.

Speaking of variety - variation takes so long to arise and differentiate into sustainable forms, it is tragic the amount of stress we unthinkingly force on the biological systems that we live in and near. I hear people say that no matter what we humans do we won't be able to eliminate all the edible fish or ruin all the arable land and I don't think they realize how much weaker the whole system becomes when its variety is reduced. If I understand correctly, extinctions tend to cause more extinctions, as niches are opened up and ecosystems are destabilized, it is kind of a geometrical progression, a positive feedback of tragedy fueling tragedy. Speciation tends to take a long time, and we are extinguishing species at a pretty fast rate, and even if all the humans permanently adopted ecologically completely sustainable lifestyles right now, the after effects of what we have done already would take many centuries to ripple out to their conclusions (I am not talking about the physical artifacts, the pollution, but the distorted ecosystems that we put so much strain on).
posted by idiopath at 6:18 PM on September 7, 2009


Argh. All these years I've been hearing it in my head as "KAY-lo-kanth." I guess I've never heard it spoken. Sad fact.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:28 PM on September 7, 2009


I'll share with you a thought that keeps myself and other mefites coming back to the blue.. if we are just now hearing about the ceolacanth, what other interesting FPP's are out there?
posted by water bear at 6:29 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


turgid dahlia: Clickable coelacanth!

I just now tried to say that three times quickly, and bit my tongue. Thanks a lot.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:54 PM on September 7, 2009


>> I caught a Palaeoniscus just the other day. It was delicious.

Endangered and allegedly delicious (YouTube)
posted by Brosef K at 8:01 PM on September 7, 2009


Is there an idea as to why they're facing extinction?

From this page on coelacanths:

"These fish are accidentally caught on lines whilst local fisherman search the deep waters for other species. Due to the likely slow reproduction rate and small number of offspring of coelacanths, the species is possibly particularly vulnerable to the removal of pregnant females from the population."
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:03 PM on September 7, 2009


"Though the fisherman didn't know exactly what he had caught, he knew that it was noteworthy enough to save and bring to the museum in his small fishing village of East London."

This makes me wonder how many fishermen out there know what coelacanth tastes like from past dinners. You know, the fishermen who didn't take it to the museum and instead took it home to the family. (Not that I blame them, it probably just seemed like a weird fish that might be good for dinner - before they knew what it was. I'm now imagining a fish with drumsticks.)

Also - thanks for the link to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer!

"one must first play the vinyl 45 of the song Coelacanth by Shriekback"

Yes! I was somehow sure someone would mention that one!
*goes off to listen to her mp3 of that*
posted by batgrlHG at 9:03 PM on September 7, 2009


For some reason the book Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth as a gift when I was around 10 years old (I guess my parents had just given up on socializing me at that point and were shooting for "savant.")

The story is the most boring version of Jurassic Park you could possibly imagine, but I guess its the closest we're gonna in real life get so it stuck with me.
posted by tastydonuts at 9:31 PM on September 7, 2009


But that minuscule brain is intensely determined to achieve the step between fish fins and amphibian legs. Once that's worked out there will plenty of room for expansion, to work out the consequences.

All right calm down Sandra Tsing Loh.
posted by tastydonuts at 9:34 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would appreciate it if one of them at least asked why there were coelacanths still around, for the variety.

Although like you I have never heard this argument before, it is apparently common enough to prompt this nice little youtube rebuttal.
posted by DanielDManiel at 9:41 PM on September 7, 2009


Wow, I'm glad that so many of you like this post!

I'll try to answer the questions I've found, but if I skipped yours please ask again!

"“I'be always connected coelacanths with some of the blind cave fish. A fast google didn't support that, but is there any connection?”"

Nope, no connection at all, other than both are weird. Blind cave fish are ray-finned fish, just like 98% of the other fish out there.


"“Is there an idea as to why they're facing extinction?”"

Well, the short answer is that most things in the ocean are in big trouble, but a specific threat coelacanths are facing is deep-sea trawling. This is one of the most destructive fishing practices on Earth- it completely destroys the bottom habitat in addition to having a horrible bycatch rate. Also, they are slow to grow and reproduce, which makes them very vulnerable to overfishing.


And yes, it is pronounced "Seel Ah Canth"
posted by WhySharksMatter at 9:44 PM on September 7, 2009


Great post!
posted by lazaruslong at 9:50 PM on September 7, 2009


"Man, I love catching coelacanths. They're even better than dorados."

Doritos. It's pronounced Doritos. Silly kids...
posted by fishmasta at 10:27 PM on September 7, 2009


Tangential but: his fascination with dinosaur fish is one facet that makes Ray Troll something more than a popular t-shirt designer.
Oh, and: I refuse to call it anything other than a COOL-a-canth.
posted by progosk at 10:51 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Rays. Don't even get me started. Paedophiles, the lot of 'em. Worse than Hitler.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:27 AM on September 8, 2009


Coelakanth is Android.
posted by Katemonkey at 5:13 AM on September 8, 2009


P.S.: can't find a copy of Troll's little sketch online, may the title suffice: "I wanna hold your lobe-fin!"
posted by progosk at 7:05 AM on September 8, 2009


There are quite a few extant species that were thought to be extinct.
The technical, and poetic, name for these species is Lazarus taxa. A Lazarus taxon should not be confused with an Elvis taxon.

Other examples are:
- The Chacoan peccary was originally described from fossil remains, then discovered in 1975.
- The mountain pygmy possum, again only known from fossils til the 1960s.
- The Laotian rock rat, thought to have gone extinct 11-million years ago, but discovered alive and well in 2005.

As an aside, some scientists are even arguing that there are some unusual seals sea monsters remaining to be discovered.
posted by jonesor at 7:16 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, the wonders of the natural world.

Video: Paleontologists Discover Skeleton Of Nature’s First Sexual Predator (The Onion)
posted by Brosef K at 8:59 AM on September 8, 2009


Coelacanth is watching my hamster bake.
posted by fleacircus at 2:23 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Coelacanth, the replica - coming to museum shops in 2010.

Also from Cryptomundo: Was the coelacanth really "discovered" in 1938, or was it the first time a western person had recorded a sighting? Known to the Comorans as "gombessa", coelacanths had been caught before when people were trying to catch Oilfish, which reside within the same depth as coelacanth. In Indonesia, it is known as "Raja Laut," or "King of the Sea." These are two distinct species of living coelacanth, Latimeria menadoensis in Indonesia, and Latimeria chalumnae in the West Indian Ocean.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:58 AM on September 9, 2009


« Older Director Michael Moore now wants nothing less than...  |  Roxy Freeman was born into an ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments