Yes, we Coelacanth!

As of today, it's been 72 years* since humans figured out that some Coelacanths—an order previously known only in the fossil record—were still alive and swimming around in our modern oceans. The story of the discovery is a great one, full of serendipity and giant dead fish riding around in the back of taxis. Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who found the Coelacanth in a pile of "trash" fish hauled in by a trawler, had to fight to get anyone to take her discovery seriously. Once the big shots started paying attention, though, they quickly recognized the Coelacanth as a new and fascinating species.

You've probably noticed, however, that I haven't called the Coelacanth a "living fossil". That's because it's not.

I've mentioned before that I went to fundamentalist Baptist high school. My first introduction to the Coelacanth was through a heavily biased (and flawed) biology texbook from Bob Jones University, which (to the best of my memory) described the Coelacanth as a "living fossil" and took that description literally. Evolution couldn't possibly be real, I was told, because here was this Coelacanth, utterly unchanged 65 million years (air quotes implied) after it was supposed to be extinct. If evolution were real, why would it ignore the Coelacanth?

The truth: It didn't. What Courtenay-Latimer found wasn't a fleshed-out, swimming fossil at all. Coelacanth isn't a single species. It's an order—comprising multiple extinct species, and two living ones. The living Coelacanths aren't the same as the fossil Coelacanths, and there's nothing that looks exactly like a living Coelacanth in the fossil record. The order survived. But it didn't survive untouched by evolution.


Pictured: Courtenay-Latimer's sketch of the first, oddly cheerful, Coelacanth.

Put it another way: Imagine if you were an alien who only knew of Earth primates from the fossil record. You'd seen the bones of Australopithecus, but you thought primates had gone extinct—until the day you stumbled upon a living chimpanzee. That's the story of the Coelacanth, in a nutshell.

You might think this makes the living Coelacanths less exciting—if they aren't undead fossils, then they're just boring old fish. And that's partly true. In the grand scheme of things, there's nothing really special about Coelacanths. They exist today. And they evolved, just like everything else that exists today.

But don't be so quick to write them off. Coelacanths are important—as a symbol. The Coelacanth is a reminder that there are still discoveries to be made ... that we haven't seen everything ... and that, sometimes, we're wrong. The order of Coelacanth wasn't totally extinct, we humans just didn't know that yet until Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer pulled one out of a fish pile. The Coelacanth isn't a living fossil. But it is a call to arms—a reminder to never stop exploring the world.

Plus, they look really damn cool.

More on the Coelacanth:
All about living Coelacanths : National Museum of Natural History

The Sulawesi Coelacanth—the second living species, which was discovered relatively recently : UC Berkeley

Interactive Coelacanth anatomy site : Nova

Thanks to Brian Switek for reminding me that it was Coelacanth Day!

*Pre-emptive answer to inevitable complaints: Yes, 72 is a weird anniversary to celebrate. But I wasn't writing for this blog in 2008. And I like Coelacanths. So we're celebrating anyway. Don't like it? Take it up with a Coelacanth. Go on. I'll wait while you tell the giant, scary-looking fish that it's nothing to be excited about ...


  1. What’s the best way to prepare the Coelacanth? Baked? Grilled? With lemon and olive oil? I wonder how they taste?

    1. How best to serve a coelacanth?

      beer battered, deep fried! Serve with mushy peas, chips and a pickle onion or two.

      (actually pretty much any food can be improved by being battered and deep-fried)

  2. Loving the fact that sometimes there is “hard” science here! And coelacanths are really interesting. How nice that they have a special day.

    So how does one celebrate “Coelacanth Day”?

  3. Hey, that Nova interactive thing says that brain weight is negligible in adult specimens. Crap. I hope this doesn’t get out.

  4. To put it in an appropriate time-scale, it’s as if you’d assumed that the last dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, and then somebody gave you a dead pigeon.

    It wouldn’t instantly look identical to a dinosaur fossil, but you’d see the similarities pretty soon once you took it to bits.

    Only it’s actually more interesting that that because it represents a line of primitive fish that diverged from every other vertebrate a very long time ago.

  5. Maggie, 72 decimal is a nice round 60 in duodecimal. Excellent article — I had never really stopped and thought about the implications of the phrase “living fossil” before.

  6. Ms. Courtenay-Latimer’s book (bio?) that tells the story of how she became interested in science and went on to find a coelacanth and then try to convince the male-dominated scientific community of the period that it was real and that she wasn’t just a ‘silly woman’ is a great read.
    I’ve loved coelacanths ever since I was a little kid, both because they’re weirdly prehistoric-looking and because they symbolize my secret hope that someday, somewhere, someone will rediscover a DINOSAUR!
    It could happen! No, really!
    Thanks for taking the time to shout out coelacanth day, Maggie.

    1. @ Anon #6:
      “they symbolize my secret hope that someday, somewhere, someone will rediscover a DINOSAUR!”

      Look up Tuatara. I’ve patted one of the little buggers :D

  7. (sung to the tune of Oh Christmas tree/Tannenbaum)

    “Oh Coelacanth, Oh Coelacanth
    As lovely as a Rembrandt!

    Your lumpy head so chitinous
    Your ancient visage frightenous

    Oh Coelacanth, Oh Coelacanth
    Glad you’re not extinct, I Am!”

    Happy holidays you Living Fossils. . .

  8. Maggie, of all the new (ish) Boing Boing regulars, you are tops. I had no idea how much I needed to see a Coelacanth blog post today..

  9. “As of today, it’s been 72 years* since humans scientists figured out… ”

    Fixed it for you. I’ve also heard anecdotally that coelacanths taste bad.

  10. Check out “Coelacanth Rescue Mission” who have distributed “deep release kits” and t-shirts in the Comoro Islands to try to educate and assist fishermen to release the coelacanth bycatch back into the depths so they don’t die of stress from being brought to the surface.
    Not sure how good they’d taste, but this is one species I’d want to catch-and-release.
    ps. I’d love a Coelacanth Rescue Mission t-shirt, Santa!

  11. Nice post, Maggie, and thanks for the shout-out!

    And, to bring things up to speed, coelacanths from the past 65 million years *have* been found. The fossils come from Israel and Sweden. (The gap in the fossil record is now less than 23 million years!) Unfortunately they have not been extensively described and the references are hard to find, but those who want to know more can track down:

    Goldsmith, N. F. & Yanai-Inbar, I. 1997. Coelacanthid in Israel’s Early Miocene? Latimeria tests Schaeffer’s theory. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17 (supp. 3), 49A.

    Ørvig, T. 1986. A vertebrate bone from the Swedish Paleocene. Geologiska Föreningens i Stockholm Förhandlingar 108, 139-141.

  12. @ #4 Anon

    Coelecanths are emphatically NOT “diverged from every other vertebrate a very long time ago”. They’re actually interesting because they’re more closely related to tetrapods than they are to other fish.

    You can see the relationship with a close look at the skeletal anatomy of the pectoral fins. While Actinopterigians (most fish you’ve heard of) have fins shaped like a fan, Sarcopterigians like coelecanths, lungfish, and tetrapods have a narrow base that branches further down the limb. In tetrapods that structure became the arm bones, branching into the wrist, hand, and finger bones.

    If you want something that diverged from all other vertebrates a very long time ago, you want hagfish and lampreys.

  13. Apparently, Colecanth tastes oily and disgusting. That’s why they found it–it was a trash fish in a pile of other fish and they were apparently only good for using the scales to patch bike tires.

    1. A big part of the bad taste comes from the fact that they concentrate urea in their tissues as a method of osmoregulation.

      1. “A big part of the bad taste comes from the fact that they concentrate urea in their tissues as a method of osmoregulation.”

        Mmmmmm. Gout sticks! No wonder the beer batter met its match with fried coelacanth.

  14. Maggie, it’s so neat to know that you too learned biology from Bob Jones biology textbooks!

    I didn’t learn about the actual evolutionary processes of biology until an incredible “Introduction to Biological Anthropology” course in college. At the end of that class, I approached the professor and told him how amazing it was, and how much it had meant to me, and he surprised me by explaining that he had also been raised fundamentalist, and had accordingly been kept a similar distance from modern biology.

    1. Anon, I had that exact same experience with a freshman year Introduction to Biological Anthropology class.

  15. Cool topic as always!

    Maggie, have you heard anything about the way in which the second species of coelacanth was discovered and described for science?
    I teach a Vertebrate Biology course and we always tell the story of the coelacanths to our students. But it was only last year that I began to be interested in the story of Latimeria menadoensis – apparently the people who authored the species “stole” it from the actual discoverers… at least that’s the version I found here, and certainly Mark Erdmann and his coauthors don’t seem too happy with the original paper here.
    Any chance we could get the inside scoop on this?

  16. Back in ’72 (or was it ’74?) I experienced an early taste of the divine while wandering the British Museum. I came to a couple stairs that led to sort of an alcove or antechamber: round, perhaps, or maybe hexagonal, with an obviously officially closed door on the far side, flanked by two immense (200-300 gallons+) aquaria. It seemed to be a pretty low-traffic area, what with it being a dead end and all. Wondered what sort of display the museum thought proper to relegate to such a back-water, I stepped into the alcove. I have no idea what was in one of the tanks, because the other (filled with formalin or something similarly toxic) contained a coelacanth — a real, dead, somewhat bleached-out-looking coelacanth, wired into place within the tank, AND MERE INCHES AWAY FROM ME! For a kid whose favorite book a few years prior had been Gardner Soule’s “The Maybe Monsters,” it was like being in the presence of great nobility or celebrity, albeit pickled — almost as if it was Queen Elizabeth or Joey Heatherton lying there, grey and marinating, in front of me. I don’t know how long I stood there, staring at this rather poorly preserved specimen of lobe-finned wonder, but it could never have been long enough…

  17. Maggie, when I was in Japan, I discovered a collection of Palaeozoic Fossil Plushies in the National Museum Of Nature and Science at Ueno. So eventually I found a shop that has the whole range, and it includes some Coelacanth plushies! (along with a large range of Devonian fish, and “living fossils”)

    and also Palaeozic Invertebrates (and some “living fossils” as well)

    So if you want some Coelacanth love (or mayby Johnny Coelacanth does) get a plush Coelacanth.
    Now I hope this is ok and not considered against the Comment Guidelines.

Comments are closed.