Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Eureka Event of the Four-Legged Fish

                        I have written recently here and here about ‘living fossils’, creatures that have survived unchanged from ancient times, but there is another type of living fossil, the Lazarus taxon, which is an animal once thought to be extinct until living specimens are discovered in the wild. One of the most famous of these is the coelacanth, a fish that first appeared in the Palaeozoic era and which was only known from the fossil record until fishermen caught a living coelacanth off the shores of South Africa. 

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

On December 22nd 1938, Miss Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of the East London, South Africa museum was called to the local wharf to examine a strange fish that had turned up in the nets of the fishing boat Nerine belonging to Captain Hendrik Goosen. Miss Courtenay-Latimer, despite lacking formal qualifications and at the relatively young age of 24, had been appointed the first full-time curator of the museum in 1931, with a tiny budget of £700 per year, and had set about collecting specimens of local flora and fauna, putting the word about that she was interested in anything unusual that the residents discovered. With her assistant Enoch, she took a taxi to the harbour and was shown a pile of odd fishes, amongst which she noticed a large, heavily scaled blue fish with peculiar fins; the trawler men all told her that they had never seen anything like it in over thirty years of working the waters. In spite of protests from the driver, she and Enoch got the fish into the taxi and took it back to the museum, where she dashed of a letter and rough sketch of the fish to Dr J L B Smith, an ichthyologist at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. 

Courtenay-Latimer's original note to Smith

Not knowing what to do next with the massive fish (it was five feet long and weighed 127 lbs.), she borrowed a handcart and took it to a local taxidermist who did work for the museum. Marjorie’s letter reached Smith on January 3rd 1939, (the postal system was quite rudimentary) and he immediately went to the local Post Office and sent this telegram, 

Fossil coelacanth - from Fossil Fishes and Fossil Plants of the Triassic Rocks - J Newberry 1888

The following morning he returned to the Post Office and waited for three hours until the expected call came through – the insides of the fish had started to rot and had been destroyed, but the body was being preserved. An attempt to photograph the fish had been foiled when the film was found to be faulty. Further letters describing the fish were sent together with samples of the scales, and when his university examination commitments were fulfilled, Smith left his home at Knysna on February 8th 1939 for East London. Floods, rainstorms, mudslides and washed-out roads hampered his journey and it took him eight days to travel the 350 miles to the coast. On arrival, a caretaker took him to an inner room at the museum, where he saw the 
… Coelacanth, yes, God! Although I had come prepared, that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled. I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth.” 
J B L Smith The Search Beneath the Sea 1956

The first coelacanth - 1938

The Natural History Museum in London was contacted, and although Smith sent a description he refused to send a photograph (he needed to describe the find with a full description and illustrations in a recognised scientific paper if he was to be able to name the species and claim the associated recognition). A description and photograph were published in Nature on March 18th 1939 as A Living Fish of the Mesozoic Type, and the name ‘Latimeria chalumnae J L B Smith’ was accepted – Latimeria after Miss Courtenay-Latimer, chalumnae after the Chalumna River from which it was taken, and ‘J L B Smith’ for the first person to identify it. 

Immediately, Smith was inundated with letters, cables, telephone calls and requests; some were genuine enquiries from academics, some were ‘proofs’ that his claims were mistaken, some came from people who had caught other strange fishes, one lady wrote to say that she had heard he was interested in ‘old’ things and that she was in possession of a violin that had been in her family for over one hundred years, and he got letters from people world-wide admonishing him for the preposterous claim that the coelacanth was millions of years old, as this clearly opposed Scripture, many adding that 
the theory of evolution was evil and an anti-religious invention of the devil put into some men's minds to enable them to divert others from the path of true thought.” 
Plus ça change. 

From Guide to the Fossil Fishes in the British Museum - H Woodward 1886

The coelacanth was taken to Grahamstown, where Smith began a detailed dissection and prepared plates for a monograph, but his work was hastened when Miss Courtenay-Smith wrote to say that the East London museum had inundated with visitors hoping to see this world-wide phenomena and many influential people had been disappointed not to find it there. A compromise was reached, the fish was returned under police escort, and placed on display – the Director of South African museums told Miss Courtenay-Latimer to type a letter to the British museum, offering the specimen for sale, whereupon the formidable curator rounded on him, refusing to type it and expressing in no uncertain terms her opposition to the plan, and threatening to resign if it was done. The Director heard her sympathetically and ended up entirely agreeing with her stance. The specimen would stay at East London, bringing fame and much-needed revenue to the museum. The clouds of war in September 1939 brought a halt to the coelacanth story for the time being.

J B L Smith - 1952

In July 1946, Smith approached the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for money to fund a Research Fellowship, which was granted in September, and so Smith resigned from his position in the Chemistry department and in 1947 began his new role in the Department of Ichthyology, with plans in his mind to write a popular book about the coelacanth (which, he had been assured, could possibly earn him as much as a thousand pounds). Smith had leaflets printed in English, French and Portuguese, with a picture of the coelacanth, offering a £100 reward for any specimens delivered, which were distributed in East Africa, Madagascar and the islands in between. 

Smith's reward leaflet

Throughout the late 1940s and into the 50s, Smith looked for another coelacanth, but apart from one tale from a fisherman in Mozambique, he drew a blank. In 1952, Smith met Eric Hunt, a commercial fisherman, in Zanzibar, and Hunt offered to take some of Smith’s leaflets to the Comores islands, where he was planning to catch sharks. On December 24th, the ship carrying Smith and his wife back home to South Africa docked at Durban, and they were sitting in the lounge talking with friends, when a junior officer brought him a telegram, which had been redirected from Grahamstown, 
Dzaoudzi, the junior officer told Smith, was on the tiny island of Pamanzi in the Comores. Smith sent a return cable, 
and set about looking for a means of getting to the Comores. Almost everything was closed for the Christmas holiday and Smith found himself frustrated at every attempt to find transport. Finally, through his local MP Vernon Shearer, he sought the aid of Prime Minister P F Malan, who authorised a South African Air Force DC3 Dakota to fly Smith to Pamanzi. He arrived on December 29th, and was taken immediately to see the fish, which, shedding unashamed tears, he identified as another coelacanth. 

The second coelacanth - December 1952 (Eric Hunt on the left)

At first, he proposed the name Malania anjouanae in honour of the Prime Minister’s aid, but it was later ascertained that the fish had damaged a dorsal fin and its tail during a shark attack and was of the same species as Latimeria chalumnae. Smith and his precious cargo returned to South Africa on December 31st 1952, and was again frustrated in getting news of the new find out, due to the New Year holiday, but eventually word was cabled to the rest of the world. The French, who had authority over the Camores, were concerned that the discovery had been made in their waters, and demanded that the specimen be returned, but negotiations, prevarications and the eventual capture of another Camorean coelacanth brought the affair to an end. Since then, many other coelacanths have been caught, although there is now a ban on their capture, and other have been filmed in the wild – it is estimated there is a population of about 500 individuals. 

Geological Time-Scale - Coelacanth indicated

The scientific importance of the discovery of the coelacanth cannot be overestimated – the fossils of a species that appeared over 400 million years ago, and was thought to have died out 50 million years ago, have been found across the world and point to the origins of all vertebrate animals, ourselves included. Embryos, again including our own, exhibit gill slits and tails at certain stages of development, again pointing to fishy origins, and the fins/legs of the coelacanth indicate a transitional move from marine to land-dwelling animals. The coelacanth was discovered less than seventy-five years ago – the second example just sixty years ago – which begs the question, Are there other cryptids out there waiting to be found? I like to think Yes, there are.


Miss Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer died on May 17th 2004, aged 97. She never married. 
Dr J L B Smith lived until January 7th 1968, when, after a long illness, he took cyanide. 
Eric Hunt was lost at sea attempting to save others off the Camores, on May 25th 1956.

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