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‘Prehistoric’ Coelacanths have survived in the deepest, darkest ocean depths

Posted in Animals, Conservation, Fish, Nature, Prehistory on Wednesday, 6 November 2013

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This edited article about the Coelacanth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 449 published on 22 August 1970.

Coelacanth and fossil, picture, image, illustration

Coelacanth and its fossilised ancestor

Try to imagine the shock you would feel if you were suddenly confronted by a life-sized dinosaur. This was the sort of incredulous amazement experienced by everyone connected with the capture of the first coelacanth in recent history. The coelacanth – a fish – is thought to have become extinct 300 to 700 million years ago!

It happened on 22nd December, 1938, when this fish was spotted among sharks brought in by a local fisherman in East London, a port in South East Africa, by Miss Courtenay-Latimer, the alert curator of the local museum.

This strange fish, five feet long, with curiously padded fins similar to limbs, was unlike anything she had ever seen before, so she sent a sketch of it to Professor J. L. B. Smith, the famous fish expert. He identified it as a coelacanth from fossil remains and named it Coelacanth Latimeria.

The discovery caused a sensation and leaflets were distributed with photos of the fish, offering rewards for any others captured.

In 1952, the search of Professor Smith and his wife for the fish seemed to be rewarded. A cable from Captain Eric Hunt told them that a coelacanth had been captured off the Comoro Islands, between Mozambique and Madagascar, some 2,000 miles away. They flew to identify it.

On 24th September, 1953, a third coelacanth was caught by Houmadi Hassani, a fisherman, off Anjouan Island. This one differed from the others already caught in that it was brown with white spots, and had phosphorescent eyes. This description confused the experts at first as all the others had been steel blue in colour.

Professor Jacques Millot, who had joined in the coelacanth search, believed that the fish had a remarkable facility for individual variation. This theory has since been verified.

At midnight on 29th January, 1954, coelacanth No. 4 was captured. It was very exciting. Just as experts were finishing embalming it, another coelacanth, even larger, was brought in. Two days later yet another was caught; then no more were found for eight months.

So far, 28 coelacanths have been taken from depths ranging from 650 to 2,000 ft., the largest weighing 209 lb. – the smallest weighing 43 lb. Inexplicably, each one varied in the positioning of the “limbs.”

The first coelacanth to be kept alive for any length of time was caught on 12th November, 1954, and it was female! Although it survived the ascent from some 840 ft., and was put in a water-filled whale boat, daylight had a devastating effect on it, and it died before the day was out. It had been a wild hope that it might contain fertilised eggs, but this was not so.

The main ambition now is to find a living baby coelacanth. This will be of enormous interest to scientists, and may reveal knowledge of the life forms of millions of years ago. Professor Smith works unceasingly to this end, and his name will always be linked with the most amazing discovery of the century in the realms of natural history.

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