“These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils" - Majorie Courtenay-Latimer and the Coelacanth

22 December 1938, the South African museum curator Majorie Courtenay-Latimer was alerted to the catch of a coelacanth, a living fossil fish, previously believed extinct more than 65 million years ago.

“These anomalous forms may almost be called living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and from having thus been exposed to less severe competition.“ (Charles Darwin , “On the Origin of Species”)

A postcard commemorating the discovery of the coelacanth by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer in December 1938

It was one of those phone calls you wait for a lifetime and Majorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the South African East London Museum received it at the age of 31. Her museum had opened just a couple of years before and Majorie was still avid to extend its collection. Thus, she had an agreement with the local fishermen to call her when they’d fish something curious out of the Indian Ocean and then, on a fine Thursday morning, Hendrik Goosen, skipper of the trawler “Nerine” just had come home from sea and phoned her immediately. Yes, he had found such a curiosity in his nets, caught off the mouth of the Chalumna River, Majorie dropped everything and ran to the docks to inspect Captain Goosen’s catch and would not be disappointed: “I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she said. "It was five foot long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks 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."

A live coelacanth off South Africa playing tag with a diver* 

Majorie was at a loss about what exactly Captain Goosen had caught there. She hit her books and wasn’t any wiser until she consulted an ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. Smith immediately recognised the brute as a coelacanth, believed to be extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period, more than 65 million years ago. This one had been pretty much alive until quite recently, though, a scientific sensation. Coelacanths were believed to be a transitional species between fish and land-living tetrapods, more closely related to reptiles and mammals than to ray-finned marine animals. Until 1938, ichthyology assumed that coelacanths did not survive the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event along with the rest of 75% of all species that became extinct back then, but, quite obviously, Captain Goosen had netted a living fossil. 

Cast in stone: a coelacanth from a marine Bavaria, 70 million years ago

The Chalumna River coelacanth remained on exhibition in the East London Museum to this day after Majorie had persuaded the Board of Directors not to sell it for £ 5,000 to the British Museum (Natural History) and the rediscovered species was named in her honour Latimeria chalumnae, West Indian Ocean coelacanth. Fortunately for them, coelacanths taste horrible and are of no use as food fish but get occasionally caught in deep-sea fishing nets, nevertheless a pair of marine biology students discovered one in a fish market in Manado on Sulawesi Island in Indonesia, thousands of miles away from the Indian Ocean and a second population of coelacanths has been detected in the Celebes Sea in 2000. However, the living fossils are extremely rare and are rated as threatened.

* the image above was found on: http://isimangaliso.com/newsflash/isimangaliso-coelacanths/

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