April 2013
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This viral ad may be contagious
A new sea view
75 years of coelacanth research
Sell your science at FameLab
Young science communicators show their mettle
Brazil nuts, bees and orchids
Winning design powers aeroplane
Journalists and scientists meet
Brainstorming solutions for tomorrow
Meet Sibongile Mokoena
SAIAB at Scifest Africa
A world in one cubic foot
Biodiversity Youth Symposium
Daveyton now has an eye to the sky
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

Celebrating 75 years of coelacanth research

 
  When skipper Hendrick Goosen caught a strange looking fish while trawling off the Chalumna River near East London on 23 December 1938, he called the curator of the local museum, Marjory Courtenay-Latimer, who always showed an interest in anything unusual among his catches.
 
  The big blue fish immediately caught Marjory's attention. She would later write it was, "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings". (Image SAIAB)
 
  Realising that this was an important find, Marjory made a rather crude sketch of the creature, which she mailed, along with a description, to Professor JLB Smith in Grahamstown. (Image SAIAB)
 
  Professor JLB Smith identified the fish as a coelacanth on 16 February 1939. The discovery made headlines around the world. (Image SAIAB)
 
  The coelacanth found 75 years ago off the coast of South Africa can today be viewed in the East London Museum. (Image SAIAB)
 
  Several stamps have been issued around the world to commemorate this significant discovery.
This year it is 75 years since the first living coelacanth was found off the coast of South Africa. GetSETgo will be featuring a series of short articles on this amazing discovery and the people involved.

The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), a National Facility of the NRF, is internationally known for its research on aquatic biodiversity. Built on the legacy of the discovery of the long believed extinct coelacanth, SAIAB serves as a major scientific resource for knowledge and understanding of the biodiversity and functioning of globally significant aquatic ecosystems.

The skipper, the curator and the professor - the 'discovery' of the living fossil

Seventy-five years ago, the scientific world was astonished when it was announced from South Africa that a fish, which was thought to have been extinct for 70 million years, was caught in the nets of a fishing trawler off the coast of East London. Before this, coelacanths, like dinosaurs, were known only from fossils cast in stone.

The discovery of the coelacanth remains a wonderful story of chance, dedication and a great depth of scientific knowledge. When skipper Hendrick Goosen caught a strange looking fish while trawling off the Chalumna River near East London on 23 December 1938, he called the curator of the local museum, Marjory Courtenay-Latimer, who always showed an interest in anything unusual among his catches. The big blue fish immediately caught her attention. She would later write it was, "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings".

She realised that this was an important find and made a rather crude sketch of the creature, which she mailed, along with a description, to Professor JLB Smith, a chemistry professor with a well-known passion for fish at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Smith, however, was away for the Christmas holidays.

But on 3 January 1939, Courtenay-Latimer heard back from Smith, confirming the fish's importance with a now famous cable: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED". Unfortunately the innards had already been discarded in an effort to preserve the fish.

Smith identified the fish as a coelacanth on 16 February and after a photograph of the mounted fish appeared in the media around the world, Courtenay-Latimer, Smith and the coelacanth became overnight celebrities. Smith published the find in the journal Nature, naming the fish after Courtenay-Latimer and the location where it was found: Latimeria chalumnae.

With many of Smith's questions about the coelacanth remaining unanswered because of the missing innards, he continued his search for a living or intact specimen. The hunt continued and the coelacanth made the headlines again 14 years later, when one was caught in the Comoros and flown to South Africa for study by Professor Smith.

Why was the discovery important?

Coelacanths, which are related to lungfishes and tetrapods, were believed to have been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period. Its mixture of traits, taken from amphibians, bony fish and sharks, makes it unique. Its blood is rich in urea, like that of a shark, and the inner workings of its ear are similar to those of a frog.

Several of its fins have a bony lobe, similar to a limb, which earned it the nickname "old fourlegs". There is no backbone, but a large notochord, which is a tough flexible tube of cartilage, like a hosepipe, filled with oily fluid, runs from the skull to the tip of the tailfin to support the fish. Its swim bladder is filled with fat, which is lighter than seawater and makes the animal buoyant.

These features have enabled the fish to live at great depths in the ocean for millions of years.

Watch National Geographic footage of a coelacanth in its natural habitat off the South African coast.

Sources: January 2013 edition of Sawubona; www.saiab.ac.za; www.dinofish.com; wikipedia.org/wiki/Coelacanth

More about the second coelacanth specimen known to science found in the Comores in 1952 and how it captured the popular imagination will be published in the next issue of GetSETgo.

Anyone wanting to use the photographs illustrating this article needs to obtain permission to do so from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.

By Ina Roos, SAASTA