strange fish snapped at Captain Goosen's hand. (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2001)
Professor James Leonard Brierley
Smith stared at the page in disbelief. The day was January 3,
1939, and a letter had just arrived from a Miss Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer
who was the curator at the East London Museum, South Africa.
Courtenay-Latimer was writing to Smith, a South African chemistry
professor who had taught himself ichthyology, to get his help
in identifying a strange fish she had just obtained as a museum
specimen, but could not find in her reference books. Even though
the chairman of the museum's board of trustees dismissed the
animal as just a "rock cod," she thought there was
something special about it.
The fish, reported Courtenay-Latimer,
had been part of a catch made by the trawler Nerine off
the South African coast near the Chalumna River on December
21st, 1938. The fish survived for several hours on the ship's
deck, during which it snapped at the captain's hand. The captain,
Hendrik Goosen, thought the five-foot long, pale blue animal
was inedible, but decided to keep it for Courtenay-Latimer who
often bought unusual fish for the museum's collection.
Courtenay-Latimer almost didn't
make the trek down to the docks that day because it was hot
and she was busy, but she felt she should wish season's greetings
to the ship's crew. It was fortunate she did. She saw the strange
blue fish and, as she said later, declared it was "the
most beautiful fish I had ever seen..." She bought the
animal and proceeded to take it back with her. After an argument
with a cabbie who didn't want to take the smelly carcass in
his taxi, Courtenay-Latimer got it to
the museum. However, once she was there she had no refrigeration
facilities in which to keep such a large specimen and neither
the local cold-storage warehouse or the mortuary would cooperate.
Turning to a local taxidermist, she had the animal and its viscera
preserved as best she could. Then she wrote Smith telling him
the story and including a sketch of the unusual animal.
Smith was at his vacation home in Knysna when the
letter arrived. The letter, sketch included, sent his mind reeling.
He knew exactly what type of fish it was based on the description.
It was a coelacanth (pronounced 'seel-uh-kanth'),
a member of a group of fish called the Crossopterygii.
The only problem with this conclusion was that the coelacanth
and the Crossopterygii had gone extinct some sixty-five million
years before along with the dinosaurs.
finding of a the Coelacanth was said to be akin to "finding
a live dinosaur roaming the earth."
It was imperative that Smith go in person to examine
the specimen If he announced to the public that a live coelacanth
had been discovered he would be the laughing stock of the ichthyological
world if he was wrong. Unfortunately, commitments he could not
break kept him away from East London until mid-February. Wanting
to remain noncommittal, Smith wired Courtenay-Latimer the message
"Save viscera...fish interesting." This gave Smith
time to borrow a book from Dr. K. H. Barnard on the Crossopterygii
and examine some scales Courtenay-Latimer
sent him that had come off the fish when it was mounted. They
looked like what he would expect from a member of the Crossopterygii
Finally he arrived in East London on February 16th.
Smith would later write in his book Old Fourlegs, The Story
of the Coelacanth:
"We went straight to the Museum. Miss Latimer
was out for the moment, the caretaker ushered us into the inner
room and there it was the - Coelacanth..." Smith was not
prepared for his own reaction at the sight of the creature and
he was so excited he began to shake. "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 named the fish Latimeria chalumnae
in honor of Courtenay-Latimer who had spotted
it and taken the time to preserve it. Smith, with the help of
his wife, worked hard for four months to complete a scientific
paper announcing the remarkable discovery to the world in June
a marine biologist from the University of California,
was enjoying his 1997 honeymoon vacation in Indonesian
when his new bride asked about a strange blue fish she
saw in the market. Erdmann's mouth dropped open as he
recognized the animal as a coelacanth. Erdmann knew
that the fish was a member of a rare species and that
until 1938 scientists had thought it had gone extinct
with the dinosaurs. He also knew that at one time the
fish was only thought to have lived off the Comoro Islands
near Africa, but figured that they must have been discovered
in Indonesia since then. It wasn't until Erdmann posted
his honeymoon pictures, including one of the fish, on
the web and he'd gotten a call from two coelacanth researchers
at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, that
he realized he'd stumbled upon a major scientific discovery:
The coelacanth had a additional habitat some 6000 miles
away from the original ones.
Despite the excitement of the find, the internal
organs of the fish could had not been preserved for examination.
Smith knew it was important to find another, intact specimen
so it could be completely described. No more coelacanths were
found off the coast of South Africa in the next ten years and
Smith became convinced that the one that had been netted by
the Nerine was a stray. Smith thought
that the home grounds of the creature might be north near the
Mozambique channel, so he had posters printed up in English,
French and Portuguese with a drawing of the Coelacanth. The
posters, which offered a reward of one-hundred pounds to anyone
who could turn in a complete beast, were distributed in the
In December of 1952 they got a cable from an acquaintance,
Captain Eric Hunt, who was in the Comoros Islands, saying that
he had gotten a hold of a coelacanth and was trying to preserved
it for Smith with the small amount of formalin that he had.
The fish had been caught by a man named Ahamadi Abdallah on
the island of Anjouan. Abdallah was about to clean the fish
he'd caught when a local teacher showed him one of the leaflets
printed by Smith. There was a picture of the fish along with
the instructions "Do not cut it or clean it or scale it,
but take it at once to some responsible person." Legend
has it that Abdallah dragged this 82-pound cargo twenty-five
miles over mountains by foot, but in reality he probably hitched
a ride on a truck. Once on the other side he presented it to
Hunt, who recognized it as the fish Smith was seeking.
Smith immediately wanted to travel to the Comoros,
but there were no commercial airports and what private airfields
there were had problems getting fuel. Smith was concerned knowing
that the Comoros had no refrigeration facilities. He wasn't
sure if Hunt had enough formalin to properly preserve the specimen
in the heat. Also, since the fish had been caught on French
soil there was a danger that it would be claimed by the French.
Smith finally got the South African prime minister to give him
a military plane for the trip. The plane landed and after an
agonizing delay caused by a courtesy call on the governor, Smith
got to Hunt's ship where he examined the specimen. Smith later
admitted during a live radio program that he cried when he first
saw the fish. Hours later he was on his way back home, through
a torrential rain. Smith was right about the French. After he
left, the government banned foreign scientists from collecting
coelacanths for the next decade and a half.
In 1991 scientists got a better understanding of
the fish when Mike Bruton, of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology
joined with Hans Fricke, of the Max Planchk Instate to study
the fish off the Comoros Islands. Fricke had built his own submarine
so he could study the coelacanth in its natural habitat. The
animal hides in underwater caves some 300 to 700 feet down during
the day and comes out at night to feed.
The class of fish to which the Coelacanth belongs
to appeared some 400 to 350 million years ago. Scientists theorize
that it is closely related to the first four-limbed land animals.
Local Comoran fishermen had been aware of the carnivorous coelacanth
(which is Greek for "hollow spine") for years before Smith's
discovery, but since it was not edible they had not been interested
in it, though it had been given the Comoran name Gombessa.
Originally it was a concern that the Coelacanth
might have a very limited range and that overfishing along the
Comoros Islands might wipe it out. Scientists were amazed when
in 1997 another coelacanth was discovered by an American scientist
in Indonesia more than 6000 miles away from the Comoros. In
October of 2000 divers off South Africa happened on three coelacanths
in the St. Lucia Marine Protected Area. These findings suggest
that the original fish caught by the Nerine
was not a stray and that this "living fossil" may
have a much wider range than was first thought.
Also known as the
Illustration courtesy of South
African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity
Krystek 1996-2001. All Rights Reserved.