February 9, 2017

January Science Book Review: A Fish Caught in Time

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

A Fish Caught in Time.

I’m over a week late with posting my January Science Book Review — apologies! I actually managed to finish reading the book in January, but I was too busy with my day job to find the time to write the review. Better late than never!

The Monthly Science Book that I selected to read in January was A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg. Overall, I immensely enjoyed reading this book, which was very well researched and written. The book is full of wonderful pictures, drawings, and maps, and Weinberg masterfully weaves various quotations from primary sources into her captivating text. The book is full of rich historical and scientific detail but reads more like a story than an academic text. Honestly, I never thought that I would find reading a book about a fish so interesting, but this book tells the story of quite a remarkable fish as well as of the remarkable people who searched for and studied the fish over the years.


Let me tell you a little of what I learned about coelacanth from this lovely book:

The coelacanth (pronounced “see-le-kanth”) is a fish that, prior to the 1930s, was known only from the fossil record and was thought to have gone extinct in the late Cretaceous (about 66 million years ago) at the same time as the last of the dinosaurs. However, the classification of coelacanth as a “fossil fish” changed almost overnight when, on December 23rd, 1938, an unusual fish was given to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young and passionate curator of the East London Museum in South Africa. The fish had been caught just offshore of the Chalumna River on the eastern coast of South Africa by the Irvin & Johnson fishing trawler Nerine. Captain Goosen of the trawler often brought interesting specimens to Courtenay-Latimer for the museum.

When Courtenay-Latimer received the call in late December 1938 that Captain Goosen had more specimens for her to examine, she almost didn’t go down to the docks since she was very busy with museum work that needed to be finished before Christmas — and she hadn’t yet finished mounting the previous batch of specimens from Captain Goosen. However, she eventually decided that she should at least go down to the docks to wish the captain and vessel crew the compliments of the season. And it’s a good thing that Courtenay-Latimer made that decision because, after a few minutes of sorting through various fish, she noticed, in her own words, “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was five foot long, a pale, mauvy blue with faint specks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy-dog tail. It was such a beautiful fish — more like a big china ornament — but I didn’t know what it was.”

Courtenay-Latimer recognized that the unusual, beautiful fish could be something extraordinary, so she raced to preserve the fish, even going so far as trying to convince (unsuccessfully, alas) the local mortuary owner to store the fish in a large freezer. She also immediately called (with no answer) and then wrote to her colleague Dr. J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University and a well-respected amateur ichthyologist. In her letter, she included a detailed description of the fish and a crude drawing. Unfortunately, Smith was away on holiday and did not receive the letter until the 3rd of January, when it was forwarded to him. In the meantime, Courtenay-Latimer had tried to preserve the fish with a limited supply of formalin, but the fish continued to decay. Eventually, Courtenay-Latimer reluctantly gave permission for a local taxidermist to mount the fish, which preserved the skin and skeleton. However, the soft innards of the fish could not be preserved.

When Smith finally received Courtenay-Latimer’s letter, he immediately realized the potential importance of the fish and, after a short time, recognized (from the crude drawing and description alone!) that it could, remarkably, be a coelacanth — a living fossil. As the book describes, “J.L.B. Smith was experienced enough to know the importance of the discovery: it would be the greatest zoological find of the century. If, however, he announced it as such and was found to be wrong, he would be laughing stock of the world’s scientific community.”

The fish did, indeed, turn out to be a coelacanth. To honor Courtenay-Latimer and the river near where the fish was caught, Smith dubbed the coelacanth the Latimeria chalumnae. The discovery of a living (well, very recently dead) fossil fish took the world, and not just the world of ichthyology, by storm. As one American ichthyologist wrote to Smith (actually several years later after the discovery of the second coelacanth), “Now I can die happy for I lived to see the great American public excited about fish.”

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the first coelacanth. Picture from Wikipedia.

Detailed studies of the Chalumna River fish were made, primarily by Smith, who soon left his job as a chemistry lecturer to devote his energies to ichthyology full-time. Smith and his wife Margaret, a talented ichthyologist in her own right, immediately began looking for a second coelacanth specimen, hoping to obtain a fish with the soft parts preserved. Fliers were distributed all over the southeastern coast of southern  Africa, and the Smiths went on a few coelacanth-hunting expeditions in places such as Mozambique. However, it would be 14 years before another coelacanth was found. The second coelacanth was discovered a few days before Christmas 1952, this time in the Comoro Islands, known as the Comoros for short. On Christmas Eve, Smith received an urgent telegram from Eric Hunt, a trading schooner captain and amateur ichthyologist who had thought to look for the coelacanth in the Comoros.

Desperate to find a way to see and to help preserve the fish before it decayed, Smith scrambled to find a way to travel to the remote Comoros on Christmas Day. Smith once wrote, “Why on Earth did Coelacanths want to show up just before Christmas?”. Eventually, Smith ended up calling the South African Prime Minister D.F. Malan, who by chance had recently seen a copy of the Smiths’ well-respected book The Sea Fishes of South Africa (written by Smith with beautiful scientific illustrations by his wife). Malan arranged for a government plane the SAAF Dakota to travel to the Comoros with Smith. The second coelacanth was brought back to South Africa, which later caused some difficulty with the French government, who quickly realized the error of local administration in letting a foreign scientist jet off with the rare fish.

The Comoros turned out to be the home of the coelacanth, which spends much of the daytime resting in deep caves located on the volcanic slopes of the island. Over the next few years, dozens of coelacanth specimens were recovered by local fisherman and were mostly studied by French scientists eager to catch up with and surpass the coelacanth knowledge of the South African icthyologists. Eventually, many years later, scientists using the submersible JAGO were able to obtain footage of live coelacanths in their natural habitat offshore of the Comoros. Some of the first footage of the coelacanth was shown to Margaret Smith shortly before her death in 1987 (note that her husband passed away years earlier in 1968). While watching the footage, she cried, and apparently said that “seeing the live fish had now completed the circle of her life, and she was ready to die”. It is now known that several hundred coelacanths likely live offshore of the Comoros. The population is considered threatened, but hopefully there will be coelacanths for many more years to come in the Comoros — the fish is, after all, quite a survivor.

A Fish in Time was published in 1999 and ends with a glimpse of the next chapter in the remarkable story of the coelacanth: the discovery of a second coelacanth species in Indonesia. While on honeymoon in Bali in 1997, marine biologist Mark Erdmann and his wife Arnaz Mehta noticed an unusual fish in a marketplace. Erdmann suspected that the fish could be a coelacanth and had his friend take a picture of the fish. However, after some debate, he decided against purchasing the fish, a decision that he would later regret. After colleagues confirmed, based on the picture, that the fish was likely a coelacanth, Erdmann immediately started looking for another one, offering rewards to Indonesian fisherman. Many months later, in 1998, a second Indonesian coelacanth was finally discovered — a living specimen that Erdmann was able to observe (prior to its death — coelacanths are deepwater fish and struggle when brought to shallow waters) and preserve quickly. Once again, in 1998, coelacanth fever raged in the scientific community, with many calling the discovery of the Indonesian coelacanth “the zoological sensation of the decade”.

Possibly, there may be undiscovered coelacanths hiding in other parts of the ocean. For example, depictions of a coelacanth-like fish in Meso-American artwork suggest that humans have observed coelacanths in the Americas. Time will tell if more “Fish Caught in Time” are discovered.


To summarize, A Fish Caught in Time tells the remarkable story of the coelacanth (much more adeptly and in greater detail than I have above) and, just as importantly, tells the stories of the remarkable people involved in its discovery, such as Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, J.L.B. Smith, Margaret Smith, Eric Hunt, and Mark Erdmann.

Overall, I highly recommend A Fish Caught in Time. Go and read it, even if you don’t think that you’re particularly interested in fish!