Coelacanth mosaic at 81st Street subway platform

When walking to the exit in the 81st St. – Museum of Natural History subway station, among the creatures on the walls welcoming visitors to the museum is a fish that may appear to be just another prehistoric creature from some geological age long ago. In truth, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that paleontologists learned that this fish, previously thought to be a long extinct dino-era species found only in fossils, was alive and well in the waters off South Africa.

The Coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-kanth) is an exceedingly rare and endangered species of fish that is related to land-dwelling vertebrates, and its lack of evolution over hundreds of millions of years make this fish what experts have dubbed a “living fossil”; the fish looks just as it did when it first appeared in the Devonian period fossil record, some 375,000,000 years ago.  In 1938, fishermen caught the first living Coelacanth specimen near the mouth of the Chalumna River, right off the southeastern coast of South Africa. It was purportedly noticed in a fish market by a woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was a curator at the nearby East London Museum.  She, in turn, sent sketches and a description of the primeval fish to renowned South African ichthyologist J.L.B. Smith who recognized it as a Coelacanth and named the species Latimeria chalumnae after Ms. Courtenay-Latimer and the river in which it was found.  As of 1957 only 12 other living specimens had been found, all near the Comoros Islands, and were taken the Natural History Museum in Paris for study. The original discovery was hailed by scientists worldwide as one of the most important natural history discoveries of the century.

With the discovery of such specimens scientists began to believe that the Coelacanth is a missing link between water and land vertebrates as suggested by the characteristic fins that extend from their bodies like legs. They are also, along with their cousins the Lungfish, the closest living relatives of a certain group of primitive lobe-finned fishes which gave rise to the very first four limbed land invertebrates, including us humans.

This discovery was of great interest to Bob Schaeffer, Vertebrate Paleontologist and the American Museum of Natural History’s curator of fossil fishes, and it was he who set out to gain a specimen for the museum’s collections. In the mid-1950s deals were made for the AMNH to purchase the cast of a female Coelacanth from the Natural History Museum in Paris. This would be the first cast of a modern Coelacanth to hit the western hemisphere and would eventually go on view on the first floor of the Roosevelt Memorial Hall.

A few years later in 1962, Schaeffer was contacted regarding a physical (though not living) specimen in the hands of a French doctor working in the Comoros named G.W. Garrouste, who was referred to him by J.L.B. Smith.  After much consternation of exactly how to ship this delicate specimen, it was sent across the ocean via Air France and landed in a tank of isopropyl alcohol at the Department of Ichthyology at AMNH.

Coelacanth_measurements_1975

Coelacanth Measurements AMNH 1975
Latimeria (Coelacanth) at the American Museum of Natural History, 1962-1992. DR78

This turned out to only be the beginning in this Coelacanth’s story. The fish continued to sit in the Ichthyology Department for 13 years until it was brought out for a tissue sampling as part of a comparative hematology study by Dr. Charles Rand in 1975. Present for the sampling would be James W. Atz, curator in the department of Ichthyology and specialist in fish brooding habits, as well as Bob Shaeffer.

Coelacanth_dissection_1975

Coelacanth Dissection AMNH 1975
Latimeria (Coelacanth) at the American Museum of Natural History, 1962-1992. DR78

This simple tissue extraction turned into a chance to dissect the specimen, which had some very surprising results. The specimen, previously thought to be male, was actually a female and inside her were five unborn Coelacanth pups. Prior to this discovery, it was unclear how the Latimeria species bred their young, and this finding provided definitive evidence that they give birth to live babies. The number of known specimens of this rare creature suddenly grew as a result. After the discovery, much thought was put into how to best make use of the new specimens. Researchers vied for a chance to use them for their projects, and the ichthyology department accepted proposals to ensure a proper home for the pups.

According to Dr. Atz, who put together the collection of correspondence related to the specimen acquisition now in the Research Library archives, the mystery of the “dino-fish” had been romanticized and exaggerated to the point of being embellished into a Jurassic-park like myth. The discovery attracted many people to, as Atz put it, “clamber aboard the living-coelacanth bandwagon”

Although the story might not have been as enigmatic and as some would have liked, it is certain that the Coelacanth holds a special place in the natural history of our world and has contributed to how people understand the many fascinating creatures that have come before us.  It is also an exciting event in the museum’s history and a testament AMNH’s tradition of discovery and exploration of species.

Coelacanth Cast

Hall of Vertebrate Origins

Researchers have recently undertaken the task of decoding the Coelacanth’s genome as a means of better understanding evolution of tetrapods and how fins eventually became legs.

As an intern with the CLIR Hidden Collections Project, I processed the papers of James W. Atz, a noted ichthyologist and curator at the AMNH from 1947 until becoming a Curator Emeritus in 1981. His collection contains a diverse assortment of correspondence between Atz and other scientists in ichthyology and related fields. In going through his personal papers I quickly gathered the importance of the Coelacanth and the implications further study on this creature would have on a variety of scientific spheres. Also in the museum’s collections is a well-kept record of the Coelacanth specimen’s arrival at the AMNH and the excitement it produced among the specialists here, which Atz affectionately put together before retiring.

One Response to The Living Fossil – Story of the Coelacanth

  1. Al Schultz says:

    Very interesting and informative article.

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