July 2013
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Celebrating 75 years of coelacanth research

This year it is 75 years since the first living coelacanth was found off the coast of South Africa. This is the second in a series of short articles that GetSETgo will be featuring on this amazing discovery of a living fish which had disappeared from fossil records 70 million years ago.

In the previous issue we touched on the "discovery" of the unusual fish among the catch of a trawler at East London by Marjory Courtenay-Latimer; how she tried to preserve it and mailed chemist and fish fundi Professor JLB Smith of Rhodes University about the find; and how he identified the fish. But this was not the end of the story ... with the innards missing, Smith still had many questions about the coelacanth that remained unanswered and he continued his search for a living or intact specimen.

'The 100 Fish' - A second specimen hits the headlines

  A 100 reward. (Image: SAIAB)
"Look carefully at this fish. It may bring you good fortune. Note the peculiar double tail and fins. The only one ever saved for science was 5 ft long ..." So read the reward poster distributed by Smith, who did not give up on his quest to find another living coelacanth. He speculated that the fish had drifted down from the north on the Mozambique current and therefore had reward notices with a picture of the coelacanth posted along the East African coast as far up as Kenya.

Smith's coelacanth hunt continued for 14 years before the next specimen was found, this time in the Comoros archipelago at the northern entrance to the Mozambique Channel, more than 2 000 km north from the first discovery. This is how the second find came about ...

Captain Eric Hunt, who was trading among Zanzibar, Madagascar and the Comoros, attended one of Smith's lectures in Zanzibar. He became fascinated with the whereabouts of the coelacanth and offered to post Smith's reward notices among the Comoro islands, which are midway between Tanzania and Madagascar.

Captain Eric Hunt (right) posted reward notices among the Comoro Islands (Image: SAIAB)
Captain Eric Hunt and crew aboard his schooner, the N'duwaro. The 'reward' coelacanth is in the box in the lower left corner. (Image: SAIAB)

On December 21, 1952 Hunt was approached by two Comorans carrying a bundle which contained a "mame" or "Gombessa", caught by one of them using a hand-line. This heavy, grouper-like fish turned up on their lines occasionally, but was not popular as its meat had an oily taste.

The fishermen were accompanied by a schoolteacher, Affane Mohamed, who had noticed that this was the same fish pictured on the reward notices Hunt had posted. Hunt was ecstatic, salted the fish (there was no better preservative by hand) and then took it by boat to an islet where he could buy formalin from the director of medical services.

Already aware of the scientific importance of the internal organs, Hunt injected the preservative into the specimen, then cabled Smith in South Africa. He also arranged for Smith's award of one hundred British pounds to be paid to the fishermen.

The telegram Hunt sent to Smith.
'It was a coelacanth all right; ... as I caressed that fish ... I was weeping, and was quite without shame. Fourteen of the best years of my life had gone in this search and it was true; it was really true. It had come at last.' - JLB Smith (Image: SAIAB)

The French authorities in the Comoros were not sure that this creature was indeed the fabled coelacanth, but decided to take possession of the fish anyway if Smith did not come for it personally. Hunt sent a frantic second cable to Smith, urging him to fly to the Comoros immediately.

Worried all the time that Hunt's specimen might not be what he claimed, Smith negotiated with the then South African Prime Minister, DF Malan, for a plane to fly him to the Comoros. Malan, out of the capital on Christmas holiday, consented.

The South African Airforce Dakota that carried Smith to the Comores - Smith stands third from left; Eric Hunt is second from left. (Image: SAIAB)
Once again the coelacanth hit the headlines.

Having landed in the Comoros, Smith immediately went to the harbour where he saw the dead fish. It was indeed a coelacanth. He now had his second specimen, organs intact, and the familiarity of the Comorans with this creature meant that at least one location of the coelacanth's habitat had been discovered. The Dakota soon left the Comoros, with Smith and "his" fish returning to another round of worldwide publicity.

At last Smith could piece together the puzzle of the fish's soft anatomy and examine a body plan. He discovered that the structure of the fish had remained the same for about 400 million years, most likely because the modern coelacanth's lifestyle is similar to that of its ancestors and there has been no pressure to change.

Guarding his treasure - JLB did not let "his" fish out of his sight. (Image: SAIAB)
JLB and his wife Margaret inspect the proofs for "Sea Fishes of the Indian Ocean". (Image: SAIAB)

In the aftermath, the French felt cheated and closed the coelacanth to non-French researchers until the islands became independent in the 1970s. French scientists took over the research from where Smith left off and over the next 10 years almost all the coelacanth's anatomical and biochemical secrets were revealed.

JLB Smith wrote his account of the coelacanth story in the book Old Fourlegs, first published in 1956. His book, Sea Fishes of the Indian Ocean, meticulously illustrated and co-authored by his wife Margaret, remains the standard ichthyological reference for the region.

The 100 fish brought to South Africa from the Comores by JLB Smith is on permanent display at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahamstown.

In spite of the controversies that followed, he was content with his role in the search for the coelacanth.

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

By Ina Roos, SAASTA