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Undina penicillata, at Göteborgs Naturhistoriska Museum. Undina is a genus of prehistoric coelacanth, lobe-finned fish, which lived from the Triassic period to the Cretaceous period. CC BY-SA 4.0
1931, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was a hired as curator at the East London Museum in South Africa. Marjorie wasn’t a classically trained for the job, but she managed to impress her interviewers with her comprehensive South African naturalistic knowledge. She really took to the role, passionately collecting prime specimens of rock, feathers, shells, and alike for the museum. At some stage she also opened a dialogue with local fishermen, asking them to get in touch if they ever spotted anything out of the ordinary. On December 22nd, 1938, that call came. One Captain Hendrick Goosen invited Marjorie to come down to the dock and inspect his latest catch.
“I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was five-foot-long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots: it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail.” (Quoted from Amemiya, Dorrington, & Meyer 2014.)
Marjorie raced back to the museum with the large fish in a taxi, a situation which the driver hardly tolerated- according to her recollection. Rifling through her reference books she tried to identify the specimen to no avail. Now confident that this was an important discovery, she sought to preserve it. The museum’s facility was not equipped to handle this task. Her first thought was to take the large fish to the morgue (in yet another cab), they refused to assist her. During this time, she attempted to contact J. L. B. Smith, an ichthyologist friend who taught at Rhodes University in Makhanda. She believed he could help identify the fish, but he was on holiday and she was unable to reach him. After exhausting all apparent options, Marjorie took the fish to a taxidermist. The process employed unfortunately destroyed some novel features of the fish’s gills. Had this been handled differently, a technical classification would have come sooner.
Latimer with her Discovery (Wikimedia Commons)
Smith finally arrived to examine the specimen on February 16th, 1939. When he saw the fish, he knew this was something special.
“I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of a doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true coelacanth. It could have been one of those creatures of 200 million years ago come alive again.” (Smith 1956:73 – Quoted from Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald R. Prothero)
He named the species Latimera chalumanae, after its discoverer and the place where she found it. Another specimen would not be positively identified for 14 years.
The spot where Latimer discovered the Coelecanth has been renamed Latimer's Landing. (Wikimedia Commons)
Later there was some anecdotal evidence that fishermen had known of the species for decades, tossing it back as it was less than ideal for commercial purposes. Without Latimer being curious, reaching out to the community and maintaining a passion for her station year after year, this small population of ancient survivors might have been lost before we even knew they were here. After all, the documented fossil record didn’t feature any evidence of the fish existing in the last 80 million years.
Contemporary evolutionary biologists now agree that the Coelacanth (or one of its direct predecessors) was not the ancestor of all living terrestrial animals, but it is a fine example of how a novel feature can develop under the right environmental pressures. It is a remarkable species because its form is so effective as to remain virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.
So, does it matter if we lose the coelacanth now? Over 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Much like the also-ancient members of the order Crocodylia, the Coelacanth’s appearance does not inspire much relative charity, it is no Koala or Panda bear. Of what consequence is it to the “bigger picture” if we extend the life span of a 300-million-year-old genus by another few decades or even centuries? Would we be doing it for the fish or for ourselves? Maybe such efforts are little more than vanity projects for those involved, and this fish doesn’t need us at all. And what if we are the root of the next mass extinction? Is it better for a species to join the other extinct 99% through the force an asteroid or the inaction of the first species capable of remembering them?
Live coelacanth discovered off the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa. South African Journal of Science. 116 (3_4 March_April 2020) CC BY-SA 4.0
One Fish & 300 Million Years
Humans have a strange relationship with extinction. Cultural awareness of our impact on the environment is more attuned than ever, and at the same time, the damage we’re causing as a species is arguably at its peak. In 2010, the UN Environment Programme estimated that we lose 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird, and mammal species every day, but what we know as “extinction” is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a scientific one. Certain species captivate us with their cuteness, becoming the icons of environmental movements, symbols of national pride, and the direct recipients of massive charitable support, while other less-marketable species, fall to the wayside. Deep in the West Indian Ocean, a living fossil of the latter description lurks.
Back in the late Cretaceous the oceans sported a great many fantastic unfamiliar creatures. One was the already ancient fish, the Coelacanth. According to the fossil record, it had already been roaming the oceans for tens of millions of years by the time the dinosaurs neared their end. The most distinctive feature of this scaly relic was its thick, fleshy pectoral fins which superficially appeared to be a feature in transition. While examining fossils from this period, paleontologists and ichthyologists of the early 20th century had speculated that this fish might have played a key role in the evolution of the first terrestrial animals. The fish’s unique fins, (which almost looked like hands with wrists and finger bones) seemed to be transitioning toward a limb that could support the animal’s weight on land. The fossil record for this distinctive species seemed to disappear some 80 million years ago, the obvious conclusion at the time was that; whatever force it was that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, must have also destroyed this fascinating fish. For decades, that would be the prevailing theory.
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