Happy Coelacanth Day!

As a child I lived a few years (mid-1970’s) in East London on the coast of South Africa. One of East London’s claims to fame -and deeply ingrained in local civic pride – was the discovery of the Coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish that had previously been known in the fossil record. That first coelacanth is still on display (left, image Source & Copyright © www.SA-Venues.com ) at the East London Museum which I would often visit while on my lunch break at Selborne College. This fish was caught on the 22 of December by Captain Hendrik Goosen who had been trawling off the Chalumna River near East London. By previous agreement he had called in Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of the East London Museum, to have a look at his catch. Amoung the fish he had netted she noticed “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings.” She had no training in ichthyology and could find no record of the fish in her collection of books, so she sent a letter and a rough sketch off to a friend, Dr. J.B.L Smith, a chemistry professor at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. (see below)

Smith had a known penchant for ichthyology, however, he was on Christmas holidays at the time, so he did not find out about the find until later. In the mean time, not knowing of other means of preservation, Latimer had sent the fish to a taxidermist to be mounted – only to recieve a urgent cable from Smith on the 3 of January: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.” It was too late – the innards had been discarded and could not be found, despite a search through the garbage. He finally arrived to view the specimen on February 16, 1939, and he was to name it Latimeria chalumnae in honor of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the river near where it was found. It was to be 14 years before J.B.L. Smith was to obtain another fully intact specimen.

  • For more on the history of the Coelacanth, as well as video of the live in its habitat, see Dinofish.
  • For more on South African fish, visit SAIAB (founded by J.B.L. Smith`s widow, Margaret Mary Smith, who persuaded Rhodes University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to establish the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology in 1968).
  • For those with money or academic access, go to J.B.L. Smith`s description of the first fish in Nature (Nature 143, 748-750 (6 May 1939) | doi:10.1038/143748a0)

2 Comments to “Happy Coelacanth Day!”

  1. Thanks Ted. I have only two vague memories of museums in Pretoria – one was a large whale skeleton and the other was an Egyptian mummy, particularly memorable to a child because the wrappings were damaged on the left foot, and the mummified toe that was visible seemed to have had some of the flesh gnawed away…

  2. A most interesting fish, and nice write up. I had the pleasure to see a specimen at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria during a visit 9 years ago.regards–ted


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