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December 22, 1938: “Old Four Legs”


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One of the most astounding scientific discoveries of the 20th century was initiated by a simple phone call, early in the morning of December 22, 1938. “Miss Latimer, we got here one and a half ton of fish, maybe you are interested?

Marjorie Courtaney-Latimer, curator of the little museum of East London (South Africa), went to the harbour as many times before, to inspect the catch of the local fishermen for new specimens for the museum. At a first glimpse nothing special, but then “There was the most marvellous fish I have ever seen. Dark blue, metallic, with white spots and a strange iridescence. It was 1,5 meter long.” “A strange fish, Miss, for over thirty years I’m fishing in this region, but such one I have never seen.

Fig.1. A newspaper article announcing the capture of the second specimen of coelacanth (this time in the coastal waters of the Comoros-islands), fourteen years after the first discovery.

Latimer regarded the fish as something special, maybe related to the lungfish (a freshwater fish). Consulting some books see recognized similarities to the reconstruction of fossil fish species, thought to be extinct at least since the demise of the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago. Latimer contacted the only available expert in South Africa – James L.B. Smith of the Rhodes University in Grahamstown. From a drawing send to him by Latimer also Smith identified the captured fish as member of the “fossil” order Coelacanthiformes, or Coelacanths. Smith will describe the new living species, nicknamed “Old Four Legs“, as Latimeria chalumnae, in honour of Courtenary-Latimer and after the estuary of the river Chalumna, where the animal was captured.

Fig.2. The fossil coelacanth species Macropoma speclosum (REUSS), from  the Cretaceous of Kochovice, Czech Republic.

Bibliography:

THOMSON, K.S. (1993): Der Quastenflosser – Ein lebendes Fossil und seine Entdeckung. Birkhäuser-Verlag: 250

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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