Monday, September 3, 2012

The coelacanth

My favourite fish is the coelacanth. (Whaaat? Fish? FISH? You mean the one with scales? And it is not even named Gussie Fink-Nottle! There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The coelacanth is what is known as a living fossil. (There are disputes over whether there is such a thing as a living fossil.) I read about the coelacanth in some book when I was in school and I have been fascinated by it ever since.

I recently read a book about it called A Fish Caught in Time. To write a whole book about a fish and keep the reader interested throughout is a tremendous achievement by the author. (You will no doubt be thinking that it also depends on how weird the reader is.) The story of the coelacanth has been called the greatest fish story ever told.(It is more dramatic than Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.)

Let us go to the beginning. (According to the King of Alice in Wonderland, that is generally a  good place to start.)  Not all the way back to 400 million years ago when coelacanths first start appearing in the fossil record. (That reminds me about a joke about the problem of being too exact with large numbers. An attendant in a museum told a visitor that a particular fossil was 65 million and 3 years old. When asked how he knew the age so exactly, he replied that when he joined the museum 3 years ago, he was told that the fossil was 65 million years old.) We will just go back to Dec. 1938 when it was found to be alive when it was thought to have been extinct for about 70 million years.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a curator at the East London museum went down to the docks to inspect some fishes that had been been brought for her. She found the pile uninteresting but then found a blue fin sticking out of the pile. When she removed the slime, what was revealed was 'the most beautiful  fish I had ever seen' but she didn't know what it was. She preserved the fish with formalin and wrote a letter with an accompanying diagram to Prof. J.L.B.Smith, a chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University and amateur ichthyologist. J.L.B. (as he seems to have been known; to the best of  my knowledge, he did not consider changing his name to Tyrannosaurus rex). was an obsessive workaholic with incredible mental powers. The author notes:
There are numerous examples of J.L.B.'s extraordinary mental powers. He had a photographic memory, and could read sixteen languages and speak eight. When he went to Mozambique for the first time, he learned Portuguese in three and a half weeks, and then proceeded to give an hour-and-a-half lecture without notes. During the war, when he was not fulfilling his teaching responsibilities or hunting for new fish, he managed to produce three chemistry textbooks, which went into numerous editions and were translated into several foreign languages....Another time J.L.B. recognized, from a distance of fifty yards, a man he had never met, the son of a fellow classmate he had not seen for fifty years.  The shape of his skull, apparently, had been a dead giveaway.
He saw the letter 11 days after it was sent because he was away on Christmas vacation. When he saw the diagram, he thought it resembled the fossil of a fish that he had seen which was thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago.
It was a remarkable feat of mental agility.  Smith had apparently taken a rough sketch by someone who was not a skilled artist, of a five-foot fish, found in the Indian Ocean off southern Africa, and connected it with a fossil, a little over twelve inches long and 200 million years old; which had been discovered in freshwater in Greenland, and which he had read about in a scientific journal.
If he was right, it would be the greatest zoological discovery of the century. But if he announced it and it later turned out to be wrong, he would become a laughing stock. The only way he could be certain was to see the fish for himself. It was almost 2 months before he could make it to East London by  which time the soft parts of the fish were lost. The author quotes J.L.B.'s reaction on seeing the fish:
Smith was ushered into the inner room where he saw the fish for the first time, sitting on Marjorie's large mounting table: "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.
That is the sort of impact a coelacanth has on adults. (It helps if you are an ichthyologist.) The announcement of the discovery was followed by a media frenzy. J.L.B. then determined to catch a second coelacanth to examine its soft parts which were destroyed in the first specimen because of his delay in getting to it. He distributed leaflets all along the East African coast promising a reward of 100 pounds for the finders of the first two coelacanths. But he had to wait for 14 years to get another one. He got a cable from a friend  that a coelacanth had been caught in Dzaoudzi. He had no idea where the place was.

He found that it was an island of the Comoro archipelago. No commercial flight flew there and a boat would take too long. He was desperate to get there as quickly as possible but as before, it was Christmas holidays - either he couldn't get the person on the line or they couldn't help and he said in frustration, 'Why on earth did Coelacanths want to turn up just before Christmas?'

Finally, an air force plane was arranged at the behest of the South African PM to transport him to the Comoros. The crew was not sure if they had got all the diplomatic clearances or even if there was a landing strip at their destination. J.L.B. remarked to the bemused Commandant, 'I bet when you joined the South African Air Force you never expected to command a plane sent to fetch a dead fish.'

When he finally managed to see the fish, JLB had the same reaction that he had the first time. When he finally managed to bring the fish back, South African Broadcasting Corporation interrupted its  regular schedule of programs for a live broadcast by an exhausted JLB:
The broadcast began, and Smith's confidence grew. His delivery was typically measured, but he could not disguise his emotions as he started to relive the experience. When he told of weeping at the sight of the fish, tears started to fall again. When he finished, he was completely spent. The program was later described as one of the most emotionally charged pieces of broadcasting ever to have been aired on South African radio.
When the find was announced to the world, it created a sensation.  The French were astounded by the reaction. They were miffed that a Frenchman had not hogged the limelight. (The Comoros was under French jurisdiction at the time.) The displeasure of the French almost led to a diplomatic row. They then banned foreign scientists from hunting for the fish in their territorial waters. From then on, for over 2 decades, the coelacanth became a 'French fish'.

Right. So why this kolaveri over a fish? Granted it is big, blue and was thought to be extinct for millions of years. What else? The  coelacanth belongs to a group of fishes known as the Sarcopterigians one lineage of which eventually evolved into humans. The coelacanth is thought to be a close cousin of that lineage. At  one time, it was thought to be a direct ancestor of humans but now this theory is discredited. (BTW, who was the first man?)

Another colony of these fish belonging to a different species was discovered in Indonesia in 1997. (Coelacanth is a name given to a whole Order of fishes. The extant species belong to the genus Latimeria - named after Marjorie Courtney-Latimer -  which is not found in the fossil record.) There are tantalising clues they may be found in other places. It may be better for their long term survival if they are never found.

This post has  some curious facts about the fish.  Here is a documentary about it. (Some statements in the program about evolution eg.saying that animals anticipate requirements in a future environment, are misleading.) Here is another documentary about the hunt for the pre-historic fish. If you have not had enough of this magnificent fish (which of course is the case), you can get more information from this site.

The coelacanth has achieved such worldwide fame that when a German magazine asked, 'Why is it worthwhile living this week?' a schoolchild replied, '...coelacanths still exist.' By now, either you are a fan of the coelacanth or are not a fan of the coelacanth. Inspired by this TED talk, I will summarise this post in 6 words - 'I salute thee, good Old Fourlegs'.And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of this piscatorial post.


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