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 ...
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.