December 23 – Oils Well That Ends Well

Today’s factismal: Coelacanths are the most critically endangered animals on Earth.

Though scientists don’t believe in luck (but we do believe in stacking the deck), we often benefit from chance discoveries. And one of the more interesting discoveries to benefit science was the rediscovery of the coelacanth on December 23, 1938.

A fossil coelacanth (My camera)

A fossil coelacanth
(My camera)

We had known of the coelacanth for years from fossils. Indeed, that’s how the fish got its name, from the hollow spine (koilos akantha) in the front fins of the fossil specimens. But we had always thought that, like most of the other critters from 66 million years ago, it had become extinct. And then one day, Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, who was the curator of the East London science museum in South Africa, noticed an odd fish in the local fish market. She eagerly bought it, took it to the museum and tried (and failed) to classify it. She had the fish taxidermied and brought it to a friend who taught at a local university. The friend recognized it as a coelacanth and named the species Latimeria chalumnae after the person who rediscovered it and the place where it was found.

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer (Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer
(Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

Interestingly, it was in another fish market in 1997 where the other species of coelacanth was first found. While on a honeymoon in Manado Tua on the island of Sulawesi, Mark and Arnaz Erdmann noticed a very odd fish in the fish market. He quickly took a picture of it but wasn’t fast enough to buy the fish before another shopper did. His picture was seen on the internet by an expert in fish biology who contacted the Erdmanns; they then asked the local fishermen to bring any of the fish that they found to the local science museum. A year later, they did and the Latimeria menadoensis was officially discovered. The irony of coelacanths being found in fish markets is that their flesh is rich in foul-tasting oil that also creates explosive diarrhea. Anyone eating the fish is in for a most unpleasant surprise. But then, they couldn’t be as surprised as the coelacanths were…

Unfortunately, though the coelacanth has survived more than 400 million years, it may not last another century. That’s because it is frequently caught by accident as the local fishermen angle for oilfish. And it is because the coelacanth appears to be highly local for an ocean-dwelling fish; it is only found off of the east coast of African and near the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thanks to the high bycatch and limited distribution, the numbers of coelacanths have dropped to the point that both known species are considered to be endangered, making the coelacanth the most endangered animal in the world.

Of course, this may not be the end of the road for the coelacanth. There may be more of them waiting in some fish market elsewhere in the world. And all that we need to find them is a group of people who like to discover new things – people like you! If you see an unusual fish in a market or in the water, then please report it to Fish Base. They’ll help you identify the critter. Who knows? You may discover the third species of coelacanth!

One thought on “December 23 – Oils Well That Ends Well

  1. Pingback: March 8 – A Woman’s Work | Little facts about science

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