The coelacanth(s) (Latimeria chalumnae and Latimeria menadoensis – yes, there are two different kinds of them) must be amongst the most famous fish in the entire world. And rightly so, since their discovery was one of the most astounding zoological moments of the 20th century.
But they’re not just famous. They’re also a bit misunderstood, and bit mysterious. They are not really living fossils, or missing links. They are fish that give birth to live young, hunt by doing a headstand and carry in their bodies a blueprint that in some ways connects them more closely to you and me than to all the other fish in the oceans …
Welcome to the world of the King of the Sea …
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Hit the View Post button for film of the awesomely cool coelacanth (really quite soothing to watch, I promise!), and links to much more info on this legendary fish …
At first glance, the coelacanth might look like just another fish I guess …
(a model, not the real fish, as is probably obvious)
… but the differences are there, and pretty obvious, once you look more closely. Once, for example, you get a really good look at its suspiciously limb-like fins, as you can when looking from below:
But, of course, you can’t beat the real thing. So here it is, in all its lugubrious glory:
That film was shot, by the way, by Hans Fricke, who really deserved a mention in the episode. He is the guy when it comes to direct observation of living coelacanths: he pioneered their study using submersibles. There’s a good Wired interview with him here. A genuine zoological pioneer/adventurer.
Sadly, there’s no English Wikipedia page for Hans Fricke. There is, however a German one, which led me to possibly my favourite (and most trivial) discovery in all my research for this episode: the German word for coelacanth is Quastenflosser. Which I think is absolutely brilliant.
Anyway, never mind that.
One of the handiest short(ish) summaries of current knowledge about the coelacanths I found was a (Warning! Direct PDF link incoming …) 2014 review of the species produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you want to know more about these extraordinary animals, in slightly more technical detail than I got into in the episode, that’d be a good place for you to start (has a huge chunk of references at the end, to point you towards further research).
And I’m not going to put them all in here, but if you go to the always fun Wikimedia Commons here, you can see photos of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, with and without coelacanth and, best of all by far, you can see her original note to James Smith, complete with the properly historic first ever drawing of a freshly caught coelacanth, measurements and so on. A serious, kind of amazing, little bit of scientific history.