Of all the unique creatures on this fantastic planet of ours, my absolute favorite is the Coelacanth (pronounced see-la-kanth). I love a good backstory, and this is a fish that most definitely has one.
Back in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was asked to come down to the docks to check out a strange fish that a fisherman had pulled up in his net. She ran a museum in South Africa, and was known to be interested in fish. She rushed down, and there it was, this huge, ugly, wonderful thing that no one had seen before. It had these extra stubby protrusions that looked like proto-legs. She knew she had something unique and wanted to consult with scientist JLB Smith, but unfortunately in that era, refrigeration for something that size was all but impossible to come by. She made a sketch, and kept the skin, but the internal organs of this animal promptly rotted.
When Smith got the sketch, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The last time he had seen a fish similar to this it was in fossil form. And the most recent fossil dated from, I kid you not, 65 million years ago. Yes, you read that right. Million. With an M.
Smith became obsessed with finding another one of these fish. He put out posters with a reward in all the fishing villages up and down the coast. It would be 14 years before one finally surfaced, if you’ll pardon the pun, and that was from the Comoro Islands in 1952.
There’s a great deal more to this story, with quite a few twists and turns, so I highly recommend that you read A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. There’s also an amazing website that’s worth visiting, www.dinofish.com. You can also find some great documentaries and videos if you search for it on youtube.
Some more fun facts about the Coelacanth:
- They give birth to live young, which are called pups. They come from eggs, but the eggs and pups stay within the mother’s body. The gestation period appears to be about three years.
- They like to do headstands.
- Very little is known about their feeding and breeding habits. At dusk they swim off to depths where scientists are unable to follow. (And incidentally, scientists, why haven’t you devised a Coela-cam, hmmmm?)
- You’ll never see one in a aquarium. They never survive the change in pressure of being brought up from the depths.
By 2004 I had been fascinated with the Coelacanth and had read everything about it that I could get my hands on, so I knew that a specimen was housed in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I just happened to be going to that fair city, so I made it a point to visit. I was so excited. I looked all over that enormous museum and had just about given up hope when there it was, tucked off in a dark corner, in a display case covered in dust. I couldn’t believe it. I bet most people overlook it. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “Don’t you people realize that this is the most important thing in this entire museum?”
But instead I just broke the rules and took this picture, and felt like I was part of millions of years of history. Ironically, after doing just fine for millions of years, thank you very much, since it is now of interest to man and therefore “collectable” (and with such a long gestation period every one that gets caught in a net makes a huge impact), the Coelacanth is currently on the endangered species list.