Endangered Species Report #31
Written by: Jeremy Koppel
You are probably more familiar with the tyrannosaur or the brontosaur than the coelacanth (pronounced "seel-uh-kannth"), but it is nonetheless part of the same group of animals - the dinosaur. But why are we talking about a dinosaur in an Endangered Species Report? Well, if you took a trip to southeastern South Africa and stopped by the East London Museum, you might stumble across an exhibit of the coelacanth, a fish that scientists say went extinct about 65 million years ago. Only one problem. That specimen was captured alive in 1938.
According to most sources, on December 22, 1938, Captain Hendrick Goosen of the trawler Nerine noticed a strange fish among that day's haul. He had been fishing by the Chalumna river, near the southern tip of the continent, and among the fish caught was one that was 5 feet long, metallic blue in color, and weighed almost 130 pounds. Never having seen such a fish, he left word at the East London Museum, telling them of the find, and asked that curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer take a look at it.
Miss Latimer first objected, as she was quite busy at the museum, but, being Christmas time, she decided to oblige him. But, when she went down to the docks and saw the fish for herself, she could not identify it. Since she could not find any local support - the experts told her it was just some sort of cod - her growing curiosity prompted her to contact Professor James Leonard Brierley Smith of the Cecil Rhodes University in Grahamstown (southwest of East London), who immediately recognized sketches she sent him as a coelacanth, a fish species that fossil records have dated as far back as 360 million years ago.
J.L.B. Smith became quite obsessed with the fish, to which he gave the Latin name Latimer chalumnae; Latimer after Miss Latimer, and chalumnae after the river it was discovered by. He posted thousands signs of a £100 reward in English, French, and Portuguese, along with a photo of the first specimen, up and down the coasts of South Africa and Mozambique, to anyone who could provide a second specimen, dead or alive.
On December 20, 1952, the second one was captured; another five footer, caught off of Anjouan Island in the Comoro Islands. More than 1000 miles north, the Comoros are a group of islands in the Mozambique Channel, between Mozambique and Madagascar, south of the Aldabra Islands; ironically on the opposite side of Madagascar from Mauritius Island, where the Dodo was massacred. The funny thing is, the people of Comoro actually knew the fish quite well, by the name they had given it: gombessa. They had been catching this fish all along, when it took bait left for other fish. Removed from high society, they had no idea they were catching animals that scientists claimed didn't exist.
This is where J.L.B. Smith's story ends. In 1952, the Comoro Islands belonged to the French, who laid claim to Smith's second specimen; all subsequent specimens caught over the next 15 years were the exclusive domain of French scientists. Nearly 200 have been killed in the name of science since then; one caught in 1991 was pregnant, about to give birth to 26 pups.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Apparently, the Comorans weren't the only ones who knew of this fish. It is known by local peoples all over the Indian Ocean by more than a dozen different names in their local languages and dialects. There have also been sightings in Europe, Australia and the Americas. In 1949, a woman in Florida bought a box of scales from a fisherman (she made ornaments from fish scales) that said they were local - the Smithsonian identified them as coming from a coelacanth. There is even an account of a painting of a coelacanth in a 17th century Mexican church. Indeed, fossils of ancient coelacanth have been found on every continent but Antarctica.
In 1986-1987, Dr. Hans Frick of the Max-Planck Institute went on a search for the coelacanth, and after failing to find them during the day, a local fisherman on Comoro told him that they'd only ever been caught at night. The fisherman pointed him in the right direction, where he took a submersible down about 180 meters, and captured the first video of the coelacanth swimming around in its natural habitat. He even discovered behavioral patterns, like this peculiar one: the coelacanth will sometimes do a headstand while waiting for fish to eat, like a crocodile waiting in ambush.
In 1997, Mark Erdmann, a marine biologist with the University of California, Berkeley, was on his honeymoon when his wife, Arnaz Mehta, saw a coelacanth being wheeled through a fish market in Manudo, Indonesia. But it was brownish color instead of steel blue. They managed to take its picture, and it led to the funding of an expedition by National Geographic, Nature, and the Smithsonian Institute. They recovered a specimen, and attempted to keep it alive by dragging it through the water. Though the attempt failed, the find did confirm another population of coelacanth, seemingly isolated from those of Comoro.
This winter (2001-2002), Jerome Hamlin, the webmaster of dinofish.com, and Diana Dyjak, a Spanish translator, followed up on leads of coelacanth sightings in the Caribbean, taking a picture of the fish with them. In Puerto Rico, they met Hector Western, a former US Marine who had been a local fisherman most of his life. He told them of a time in (approx) 1974 when he saw two fish that were caught 3 or 4 miles north of el Faro de la Cucaracha. He identified them as resembling the fish in the picture Hamlin and Dyjak showed him. Not thinking they were of particular use, they had been tossed aside.
http://www.blackwell-science.com/dinosaurs/pdf/samplechap16.pdf - At the bottom of page 20 (381) is an explanation of something I have been trying to articulate for some time now - nature is dynamic; or in the words of Michael Crichton, "...life finds a way". They describe how such a mistake can be made, that scientists accidentally declared a species extinct that was alive and well; its habits changed - it went from being a shallow-water fish to a deep-ocean fish, now to depths of 150 meters to more than 700 meters. With this in mind, think of the 1999 sighting of the ivory-billed Woodpecker (Endangered Species Report #29). An experienced hunter spotted the bird and took note of its habits, many of which had never before been recorded.
So, what led scientists to make that mistake in the first place? Where did this fish come from, and why did they think it was extinct? The first known fossil was found in Wales, west of England, and the oldest known fossil has been carbon dated as 360 million years old. The youngest fossil found to date has been carbon dated as 65 million years old; this fish is older than the dinosaurs, and it was assumed it died out with them. There is no fossil record in recent history. They figuratively vanished.
Lately, scientists and conservationists alike have had more success finding live fish than their remains. Where did they go? The Comoro Islands, and many island chains in the vicinity, are volcanic. Their best working theory seems to suggest that in the areas that the coelacanth now inhabit, sediment simply doesn't accumulate.
But, wait. A dinosaur that lived through the events that killed the rest of them? How is this possible? Well, remember, no one is certain of how they died - there has been evidence to show extreme trauma in the Earth at that time. I suppose no article about the dinosaurs would be complete without talk of their demise. The two most feasible theories can be listed from opposite sides of the religious spectrum, though they both kind of fit together in a way.
In either case, we seem to be talking about a common theme when discussing endangered species: destruction of habitat. The Earth was no longer a suitable place for these animals. Aquatic life seems to have escaped this fate, being able to live off the ocean, and the other animals in it. I won't get into the Loch Ness Monster in this article, but there are many who believe that what witnesses actually saw was a plesiosaur.
Attributes and Habits
Coelacanth gets its name from its hollow fin spines; the Greek for coelacanth literally means "hollow spine". They have well developed eyes and can see well at the dark ocean floor. An odd adaptation on the snout is thought to be an extra-sensory receptor. They also have a conspicuous trilobated tail with an extra protruding trunk and fin.
The coelacanths belong to the subclass Sarcopterygii - they and the lungfish are the only two known survivors of this subclass. They are also the only members of their order, Coelacanthiformes, and are now thought to be a saltwater species. There are two species of coelacanths, Latimeria chalumnae (Comoran), and Latimeria menadoensis (Indonesian). The former are metallic blue in color, and the latter are dark brown. Specimens have been seen up to 6 feet in length and 160 pounds. The females grow larger than males.
It is peculiar how they give birth; in the specimen caught in 1991, the pups were in eggs inside the mother fish. Similar to marsupials, the coelacanth keeps her young inside until they can take care of themselves. Their longevity is not known. It is speculated they could live up to 40 years. It is also curious that while adults have been observed, a baby coelacanth has never been seen.
Coelacanths appear to be predominantly fish eaters; they have found lanternfish, cardinal fish, eels, beardfish, red breams, skates, sharks, squid, and octopus in the bellies of captured specimens. They use their limblike fins on their underside as a sort of perch while resting on the bottom of the ocean, and they do a sort of headstand while waiting for prey to swim by their open mouths.
Class: Pices (fishes)
Subclass: Gnathostomata (lobed-finned fishes)
Species: chalumnae and menadoensis
To talk about conservation of a species previously thought to have been extinct, is unique. J.L.B. Smith warned that over fishing could threaten this species; that scientist's own curiosity could lead to taking too many specimens, as was the case with the ivory-billed woodpecker. Indeed, over fishing and accidental fishing has led the population to dwindle to less than half in a decade. Even if they are spread out over the Indian Ocean, scientists estimate the total population at less than 400.
The people of Comoro are generally very poor, thus, fishing is the most important industry. The fishing technique in Comoro has traditionally been to go just offshore in a canoe, and use a simple hand line with a hook on the end, lowered to the bottom of the ocean with the weight of a piece of lava. This technique results in catching an estimated 3 or 4 coelacanth every year, which they don't do deliberately; its blood is urea based and tastes awful. Introduction of better boats is hoped to get Comoro's fisherman farther out to sea, and help diversify their catch.
In addition, dinofish.com has done something really unique. With money from coelacanth t-shirt sales from their website, they have manufactured Deep Release Kits and have given them to the local fisherman, so that when a coelacanth is accidentally caught, it can be quickly lowered back to the ocean floor without further stress. This is important because all other attempts to release or revive the fish have failed. According to dinofish.com, "Coelacanths have a delicate metabolism. Pulled to the surface by hook and line, they are exhausted, oxygen depleted, have built up muscle toxins, are overheated in the warmer water, and in a state of slow asphyxiation. The Coelacanth Rescue Mission believes that rapid deep release offers some possibility of recovery." If the fish is released on the surface, it can't get itself back down to 600 feet.
Until 2000, the first coelacanth caught off the coast of South Africa was considered to be a stray. But on November 27, 2000, a diving team had another look; at a depth of 115 meters (350 feet) in Sodwana Bay. With a bottom time of 15 minutes, they saw 3 coelacanths. It was huge news in South Africa, and as a result their Tourism Minister, Mohammed Valli Moosa, and Environmental Affairs took immediate steps to protect them. The South African Coelacanth Conservation and Genome Resource Programme was launched in March 2002 to learn more about this animal, what threatens it, and what can be done to conserve it.
In 1991, the Coelacanth Coservation Council in Moroni Comoro (the capital) had gotten the fish listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). If any are caught, and they are still alive, they must be released. Unfortunatly, even though they are listed, in the words of Mark Erdmann, "If someone tried to export one right now, there is not a single customs official in Indonesia who knows what the fish is."
Since this species lives at the bottom of the ocean, this may be one of the few species not greatly threatened by habitat destruction. The main challenge is educating the many diverse peoples that live in areas inhabited by the coelacanth. The other major concern is that aquariums and rare fish collectors will seek their own coelacanth exhibits, and the same can be said of museums. The more people know about this fish and its habits, the more we can protect it from ourselves.
WorldBook Encyclopedia (2001)