Coelacanth Heaven

I’ve been meaning to write this post for the entire 12 months I’ve been in Grahamstown, so, best for last.

Though an hour inland from the ocean, Grahamstown has functioned as a hub for ichthyology research in South Africa since the 1920’s, due to the efforts of an amateur ichthyologist named J.L.B. Smith and a forward-thinking woman named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.

It was J.L.B. Smith who described the first extant coelacanth (see-lə-kanth) species to the scientific community after a live fish was caught off the coast of East London in 1938 and delivered to Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of the East London Museum who often collected new fish specimens for Smith.

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Sketch of a coelacanth sent to J.L.B. Smith from Courtenay-Latimer in 1938. Image from pbs.org.

The coelacanth’s discovery was so amazing because this fish was thought to have been extinct for millions of years. It was known only from the fossil record, and the last record was 65 million years old. It’s the equivalent of going for a walk in the woods and encountering a live Tyrannosaurus rex.

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A newspaper headline announcing the coelacanth’s discovery.

The full story of the discovery of the first coelacanth specimens is fascinating and described in great detail in two books: “A Fish Caught in Time” by Samantha Weinberg and “The Living Fossil” by Keith Thomson.

After the coelacanth’s discovery, the J.L.B. Smith Institute was created in Grahamstown in 1977 to foster ichthyological research. In 2002, the institute was renamed the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, aka SAIAB. SAIAB is full of coelacanths! There is an entire mini-display in the front lobby that features the 2nd specimen ever caught and some history of the JLB Smith Institute. There are coelacanths on banners on the walls, coelacanth drawings and sketches and paintings… even my ID has coelacanths on it.

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SAIAB’s lobby is open to the public and filled with coelacanth history.

The original coelacanth specimen is housed at the East London Museum, where there is an entire coelacanth wing! I finally took the opportunity to visit and was impressed with the quality of the exhibit, given the museum’s small size.

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Posing with the original coelacanth specimen at the East London Museum!

One of the most fascinating things I learned during my fellowship was from a public lecture by Dr. Rob Gess, a paleontologist at Rhodes University and the Albany Museum, who actually discovered a new species of fossil coelacanth in Grahamstown that happens to be the oldest on the African continent! Just outside of town sits one of the richest shale deposits in the Southern Hemisphere from the Devonian period. During that time, the sea level was much higher and Grahamstown actually functioned as an estuary. Gess has discovered multiple individuals of baby coelacanths, enlightening the scientific community on the estuarine use of these amazing fishes.

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Grahamstown’s fossil baby coelacanth. Image from Grocott’s Mail.

In 1993, a second species of living coelacanth was discovered in Indonesia by a man named Mark Erdmann, an ichthyologist on his honeymoon. I’m still holding out for the discovery of the 3rd living species, but in the meantime there are GTs to study! As my fellowship wraps up in Grahamstown, I’m hesitant to leave this small town with a big fish, but I have a feeling I’ll be back soon.

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I created this amazing meme and couldn’t resist including it here.

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