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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Lazarus Species 1: the Coelacanth

Three days before Christmas in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer received a phone call from a friend who had trawled up a weird fish off the South African coast that morning, and knew she was interested in such things for her museum. She soon arrived by taxi at the dock. "I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she said. "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." And oh yes. It had been extinct for 65 million years, she would learn later.

She stuffed the huge creature into a grain sack, flung it into the taxi, and back at her East London, South Africa museum looked through all her fish books. Nothing remotely resembled the thing on her table. She phoned another friend, J.L.B. Smith, a chemist and ichthyologist at the nearby Rhodes University (this is South Africa, remember, where Cecil Rhodes founded the De Beers diamond company, using some of the proceeds to also set up the Rhodes Scholarships). She failed to reach Smith, who was 350 miles away, recuperating from an illness and grading final exams. After several days the fish (like visitors, as Ben Franklin has told us) began to smell. Reluctantly Courtenay-Latimer told her taxidermist to gut and mount the thing.

But she had mailed a letter to Smith the 23d of December, with a sketch of the fish. Smith received the letter January 3. When he saw the sketch, Smith later said, "a bomb seemed to burst in my brain....I told myself sternly not to be a fool, but there was something about that sketch that seized on my imagination and told me that this was something very far beyond the usual run of fishes in our seas." From the sketch, Smith thought it likely—though it was impossible—that Courtenay-Latimer’s fish was a coelacanth, a long-extinct lobe-finned creature from the group that had given rise to lung-fish which had crawled out of the seas and in turn given rise to reptiles and mammals. It had been 65 million years since coelacanths had been on the planet.

Smith immediately telegraphed Courtenay-Latimer: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS [OF] FISH DESCRIBED." An exchange of letters between them ensued, in which Courteneay-Latimer lamented to Smith that the skeleton and gills were discarded in the taxidermy process, though the head bones were still intact. It was early February before Smith had recuperated sufficiently to travel up to view what remained of the fish; he admits also that he tarried because of self-doubts that he had identified the presumably extinct creature correctly, and ambivalent about the scientific storm that would break if he was correct.

Torrential rains delayed his return, but finally on 16 February he stood before the taxidermied specimen. "Although I had come prepared, that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled," he later wrote. "I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth." Sixty five million years after it was supposed to have died out on the planet. Smith named the creature Latimeria chalumnae, after the young woman who had brought it to the attention of the scientific world, and the Chalumna river off of which the creature had been caught.

Coelacanths had swum in Mesozoic seas from 390 million years ago to 65 million years ago, when they finally went extinct (so we presumed) during the great late-Cretaceous extinctions that saw the disappearance of dinosaurs also. (Well, dinosaurs other than birds, that is.) During that impressive 300-million-year tenure on the planet, evolutionary offshoots had accumulated changes in which the ancestral stubby lobe-fins had become legs, gills had been replaced by lungs, and the resulting reptiles had moved from the sea onto land and themselves given rise to populations of reptiles with hair, a dentary-squamosal jaw articulation, high metabolic rates, and big brains—mammals, in other words.

For sixty-five million years two populations of Coelacanths had existed, their presence in that time span unknown to scientists, living as deep-water piscivorous drift-hunters. As a result of extensive searches organized by Smith, a second Latimeria chalumnae was caught in 1952, also off the east coast of Africa. Since, a few more have been collected. In 1998 a marine biologist honeymooning in North Sulawesi spotted a different surviving species of coelacanth in a fish market. Another specimen of this species, Latimeria menadoensis, was caught a year later, and a few more since. Both the Indonesian population and the East African population of coelacanths are considered endangered.

The most interesting aspect of the story is that the coelacanths have lived virtually unchanged for 390 million years, the oldest fossil specimens being virtually identical with their living descendants today. Not surprisingly, conditions don’t change greatly in the ocean depths over very long stretches of time.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer continued in her career at the natural history museum in East London, South Africa. She never married, wrote a book on flowers, and died in 2004 in her 97th year. J.L.B. Smith continued at the University of Rhodes as a chemist and ichthyologist, writing Fishes of South Africa with his wife in 1949, as well as over 500 scientific papers, in which he described and named 370 new species of fish—though none as astonishing as the coelacanth. A long illness ended in his death by self-administered cyanide poisoning in 1968 at age 71.

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