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