The Coelacanth – The Fish That Came Back from Extinction

The coelacanth (pronounced see-lee-a-canth) is a fish which has an interesting history, due to the fact that it was thought to have died out 65 million years ago, but was found to still exist in the 1930s. Its rediscovery in was seen as one of the most important zoological discoveries of the twentieth century.

Coelacanth

The coelacanth was thought extinct, but was rediscovered in 1938.

‘Extinct’ Species

The coelacanth is a lobe-finned fish from the class sarcopterygii. They appear to have developed into their current form around 350-400 million years ago and have not changed or adapted since, meaning they are often referred to as a ‘living fossil.’
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s the scientific community believed that the coelacanth was an extinct species, having died out around 65-70 million years ago. The only evidence of its existence was through fossil records.

Rediscovery

The coelacanth was rediscovered in 1938 by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a thirty-two year old South museum from the small South African town of East London. Being an expert in natural history and animal life she would often be called upon to identify strange and unusual fish which were caught by local fishermen. On 23rd December a local trawler captain Hendrick Goosen had caught a haul of various fish while trawling just outside the mouth of the Chalumna River. Out of curiosity Courtenay-Latimer looked through his catch and found a fish which she described as:

“The most beautiful fish I had ever seen … It was 5ft long, a pale, mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy-dog tail.”

However, Courtenay-Latimer was unable to identify the fish, and so took it away, hoping to work out what it was with the help on textbooks and journals. Eventually, Courtenay-Latimer came to the only conclusion she could – the fish in front of her was a coelacanth, meaning this was not an extinct species but was in fact still living in African waters.

Courtenay-Latimer contacted Professor James Leonard Brierley Smith a university lecturer who was a expert in fish and marine life. After a delay he responded with a now famous telegram:

“MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.”

When Professor Smith arrived he was able to confirm that the preserved fish was indeed as coelacanth, and one of the most important zoological discoveries of the 20th century had been made. The discovery of the fish led to fame plaudits throughout the scientific community for both Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and Professor Smith.

However, it would be a long time until another coelacanth would be caught. Efforts continued for many years to catch a second specimen, and even with the offer of a hundred pound reward no further coelacanths were caught. Eventually, two local Comoros Islands fishermen caught a coelacanth when fishing for other species in 1952. Coelacanth were caught throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and in 2000 divers went down as far as 115 metres to gain footage of three coelacanths living in their natural environment off the coast of South Africa.

Distribution, Description and Behaviour

Coelacanth Distribution

Map showing the limited worldwide distribution of the two species of coelacanth.

The rediscovery of the coelacanth led to further investigation into this species, but there is still relatively little known about many aspects of its life. There is now understood to be two separate species of coelacanth – the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis) and the West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). Both species can grow to 6ft in length and weigh over 200lbs. They have two dorsal fins, a broad tail fin and their body is covered in heavy, armoured scales. Coelacanth usually live at depths of around 500-1000 metres, but have been observed in shallower waters on rare occasions. Coelacanth are generally a slow moving fish and it is thought that they utilise ocean currents to save energy as they move around. They are a passive drift feeder, meaning they wait for prey to come towards them and then use the short bursts of speed they are capable of to catch and kill squid, cuttlefish and small fishes.

Being a lobe-finned fish the coelacanth is very different in it biology to the ray-finned fish (cod, haddock, plaice, ling, mackerel etc.) which are found in British waters. They have limb-like fins and the remnants of lung-like organs, all of which means they actually have more in common with reptiles than with other ray-finned fish.

Conservation Status

Coelacanths are classed as a threatened species, and the continuing advancement of deep sea trawling will make their survival even more uncertain. The Indonesian coelacanth is classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), while the West Indian Ocean coelacanth has been designated in the most serious category of Critically Endangered.

Courtenay-Latimer’s Legacy

Latimer's Landing

Brass plaque at Latimer’s Landing commemorating the achievements of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer went on to have a long and distinguished career in museum curation and natural history, and her discovery of the coelacanth meant that she remained famous for the rest of her life. She was awarded an honourary doctorate from Rhodes University in South Africa and she and Professor Smith were featured on a South African stamp. She retired in the 1970s and died aged 97 in 2004. Her name lives on in the scientific name of both coelacanth species and Latimer’s Landing in her hometown of East London, South Africa is named after her.

Trivia

The Comoros national football team is officially nicknamed The Coelacanths due to the fact that coelacanths are found in the waters around this country. They became a FIFA member in 2005 and at the time of writing [Spring 2015] they are ranked 186th out of the 209 FIFA member countries and have yet to qualify for either the World Cup or the African Cup of Nations.

Share this page: