December 23 1938 – Off the Coast of South Africa, the Coelacanth is Discovered

December 23 1938 – Off the Coast of South Africa, the Coelacanth is Discovered
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Near the Tyolomqa River along the southeastern edge of Eastern Cape, South Africa, a fisherman by the name of Hendrick Goosen brought in a strange-looking fish on December 23, 1938. When he returned to shore, a local museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer connected with an expert to determine it was a coelacanth (pronounced SEE-luh-kanth), a species believed to have been extinct for more than 65 million years.

Some 390 million years ago, the ancestral coelacanth diverged from the likes of lungfish and tetrapods (four-limbed creatures like amphibians and mammals) into a separate line of scale-covered aquatic predators. Swimming the waters of Australia, Africa and India, it likely preyed upon smaller species of fish. Gathering in the darkness 300-1500 feet down, they would hide in caves and crevices while the sun baked the surface of the water, then slip out at night to snare a meal.

Living at the same time as the dinosaurs, scientists naturally believed the species fell victim to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 65 million years ago. The few fossilized specimens which had been found a century before Goosen brought in his catch dated to much earlier — often 360 million years old or more — making it easy to arrive at the conclusion the coelacanth was part of the 85 percent of species that did not survive the dramatic shift that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period.

All that changed when Courtenay-Latimer laid eyes upon the specimen in Goosen’s boat on December 23, 1938 in the port of East London, South Africa. Sending a sketch of the five-foot-long fish to chemistry professor J.L.B. Smith, she sought a second opinion which agreed on the incredible nature of find. Smith, a well-known fish expert from Rhodes University a hundred miles to the west in Grahamstown, knew he saw something unique and replied with a telegram containing simple instructions: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED.”

Six weeks later, in mid-February 1939, Smith arrived to see the now-mounted animal for himself. Amazed by the trademark small head attached to the long, bulky body, he immediately pronounced it a coelacanth. When a journalist received word of the find, he took a single photograph to publish with “the most important zoological find of the century” and the two humans and their “living fossil” became known around the world in a flash.

As the attention died down, Smith spread word far and wide that he wanted another, more intact specimen to study. For more than a decade, he sent word of a reward as far north as Kenya without finding a second coelacanth. Almost 14 years to the day after the first one was found near South Africa, Smith got his wish: local anglers in the French islands of Comoros found another on December 21, 1952. Forty-five years later, a marine biologist discovered a second live species while walking through a market on his honeymoon in Indonesia.

Also On This Day:

1688 – King James II of England flees to Paris, elevating William of Orange and James’ daughter Mary to the throne

1823 – Holiday poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — better known to many by its opening words, “Twas the Night Before Christmas — is published anonymously in the Sentinel newspaper of Troy, New York

1919 – The Sex Disqualification Act removes restrictions placed on British women based solely on gender or marital status

1947 – Engineers at Bell Laboratories demonstrate the transistor for the first time

1990 – Citizens of Slovenia vote for independence from Yugoslavia

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