Diver Finds "Living Fossil"

When a fisherman caught a coelacanth in 1938 off the coast of South Africa, it was like hooking a living dinosaur-these fish were thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago. Now a population discovered in shallow, South African waters suggests that these elusive fish may not be so rare.

location of recent populaton find
Location of recent population find.

Coelacanths have existed for nearly 400 million years and were once thought to be the missing link in the evolution of fishes to amphibians. But they've gone virtually undetected by scientists, who until 1938 knew the fish only from fossils. In 1952, a population was found near the Comoro Islands northwest of Madagascar, and although specimens were subsequently caught off Mozambique, Madagascar, and, in 1997, off Sulawesi, Indonesia, some considered it an endangered species.

fossil coelacanth
John E. McCosker and Michael Lagios dissecting a coelacanth
John E. McCosker and Michael Lagios, Research Associate at CAS, dissecting a Cormoran coelacanth. Photo: Al Giddings/AL GIDDINGS IMAGES, INC.
Fossil coelacanth from Lower Jurassic which displays pectoral fins similar to the living coelacanth

 

 

Now a recreational diver, Pieter Venter, has discovered a population off South Africa's northeast coast, only about 350 feet below the surface. Coelacanths typically inhabit deep ocean canyons and caves and have been studied mostly by submersible camera.

The finding suggests that these ancient fishes may be more abundant and widespread than previously thought. Scientists are eager to learn how they have defied extinction for so long.

Arnaz Erdmann swimming with coelacanth
Arnaz Erdmann, swimming with the holotype of recently collected Indonesian coelacanth, 1998
Photo: Mark Erdmann