A "Living Fossil" Is Discovered

A "Living Fossil" Is Discovered

“On this day in 1938, South African museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered a coelacanth—a metre-long prehistoric fish thought to be extinct—from among a trawler’s catch. Albeit an accident, it was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the century.

In 1938, Latimer was a 32-year-old curator of a small port town museum in East London, South Africa that displayed nautical and marine oddities. She had befriended a local fisherman, Captain Hendrick Goosen of the trawler Nerine, and often looked over his catch for any unusual specimens to add to her collection. On 23 December 1938, Goosen pulled his trawler into port after trawling off the mouth of the Chulumna River. Although she was busy mounting a reptile collection, Latimer took a taxi to the docks when she received Goosen’s call to wish him and his crew a merry Christmas. She did so, and was about to leave when a blue fin protruding from beneath a pile of rays and sharks caught her eye. Pushing the other fish aside, Latimer saw “”the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings,”” she would later write.

Although she didn’t know what it was, Latimer knew it was special, and persuaded the taxi driver to take her and her fishy companion back to the museum. Looking through her reference books, the curator came to an unbelievable conclusion: the specimen she found bore remarkable similarities to a prehistoric fish that had been extinct for centuries. She made a crude sketch of the fish and sent it, along with a written description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry professor at Rhodes University with a passion for fish. Two weeks later Latimer received this, now famous, cable from Smith: “”MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED””.

When he was able to visit the East London museum on 16 February, Smith immediately identified the fish as a coelacanth. These fish were believed to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago and were considered the “”missing link”” between fish and tetrapods until Latimer’s 1938 discovery.

Coelacanths are large, plump lobe-finned nocturnal drift-hunters that prey on other fish. Its body is covered in armor-like cosmoid scales that give it the lovely iridescence Latimer spoke of. The word coelacanth literally means “”hollow spine,”” named after the fish’s unique hollow spine fins (it has eight fins in total). They can live up to an estimated 60 years in the wild, weigh up to 90 kilograms, and live in depths of 700 metres below the ocean’s surface. They are considered an endangered species.

After Latimer’s discovery, coelacanths have been found in the Comoros, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, and in South Africa. A living dinosaur, scientists said, would be no more incredible than the discovery of the coelacanth. Its discovery was called “”the most important zoological find of the century.”””

Credit: © WaterFrame / Alamy
Caption: Called a “living fossil,” the coelacanth was believed extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period until its rediscovery in 1938.