The scientific world was shocked in 1938 when a coelacanth was discovered. All scientists believed that this fish had been extinct for 80 million years. No fossil or trace of it had been found in more recent strata.
This discovery shattered the belief that the known fossil record represented a complete and accurate record of the arrival and extinction of species on this planet. It confirmed that the deep oceans hold biological mysteries still untapped and unimagined.
Equally important, the coelacanth is a “living fossil.” Unchanged for over 400 million years, this fish is a close relative of the fish that, hundreds of millions of years ago, was the first creature to crawl out of the sea onto land, the first amphibian, the first land creature. Thus, the coelacanth is one of our earliest ancestors. This discovery has been called the most important zoological find of the twentieth century, as amazing as stumbling upon a living dinosaur.
In the late 1930s, 32-year-old Margorie Courtenay-Latimer was the curator of a tiny museum in the port town of East London on the Indian Ocean side of South Africa. Local fishing boat captain Hendrick Gossen always called her when he returned to port with unusual or interesting fish that she might want for her collection. Usually these finds turned out to be nothing important.
On December 23, 1938, just before Margorie closed the museum for her Christmas holiday, she got a call from Gossen. She almost didn’t go. She wanted to go home to wrap presents.
However, she decided to swing quickly by the piers on her way. She climbed onto Gossen’s boat and noticed a blue fin protruding from beneath a pile of rays and sharks heaped upon the deck. She had never seen such an iridescent blue on a fish fin before and she literally gasped.
Pushing the overlaying fish aside revealed what she described as “the most beautiful fish I ever saw.” It was five feet long, pale mauve-blue with iridescent markings. She had no idea what the fish was, but knew it was unlike anything previously caught in local waters. Besides the unique coloring, this fish’s fins did not attach to a skeleton, but to fleshy lobes on the sides of its body as if they could be used to support the fish and allow it to crawl.
Back in her small museum office with the precious fish, she thumbed through reference books and found a picture that led her to a seemingly impossible conclusion. It looked exactly like a prehistoric fish that had been extinct for 80 million years.
She mailed a detailed description of the fish to professor J. L. B. Smith, a chemistry and biology teacher at Rhodes University, 50 miles south of East London. Unfortunately, Smith had already left for Christmas vacation and did not read her message until January 3, 1939. He immediately wired back, “IMPORTANT. PRESERVE SKELETON, ORGANS, AND GILLS OF FISH DESCRIBED.”
By this time, however, the fish’s innards (including gills) had been thrown away and the fish had been mounted for museum display. Smith reached Margorie’s museum on February 16 and immediately confirmed Margorie’s tentative identification. The fish was a coelacanth (SEE-la-kanth), a fish believed to be extinct for over 80 million years.
The find was important not only because coelacanths had been thought extinct for such a long time, but also because this recent specimen showed that they had remained unchanged for over 400 million years.
But Smith needed a second, complete specimen to be sure. He posted a £100 (British) reward for a complete specimen. Yet none were found. It was a tortuously long 14 years before, on December 21, 1952, fishing captain Eric Hunt was handed a complete coelacanth by native fishermen on the island of Comoro, between Zanzibar and Africa.
Hunt carried this second complete coelacanth to Smith and the discovery was confirmed. Smith published the discovery in his 1956 book on Indian Ocean marine species and rattled the imagination of the world. If an 80-million-year-old creature could lurk undetected in oceans, what else swam, hidden, through the depths? World interest in marine science skyrocketed.
Since 1956, over 200 coelacanths have been caught in the same general area. But it was the vigilant observation of Margorie Courtenay-Latimer and the knowledge of J. L. B. Smith that kept this monumental discovery from being just another fish dinner.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources recently surveyed 40,177 species. Of that total, 16,119 are now listed as threatened with extinction. This includes one in three amphibians and a quarter of the world’s coniferous trees, as well as one in eight birds and one in four mammals.