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Coelacanth: The Extinct Fish Who Came Back to Life

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Similar to a human’s time of death, when a species’ extinction is officially declared, that would usually mark it’s end. However, there have been rare miraculous cases of human errors in declaring a species’ supposed extinction. When such errors occurred, those species were then called the Lazarus Taxon (or a Lazarus Species), a title given to species which were thought to be extinct but were then rediscovered [1]. The term was coined by Karl W. Flessa and David Jablonski in 1983 [2], referring to a story in the Christian bible in which Jesus Christ raised a man named Lazarus from the dead.


Like any tall tale, Lazarus’ return from beyond the grave may be questioned and doubted. However, even in this age of modern biology, there are still cases of a species’ apparent revival. A species whose supposed extinction occurs in a time before human existence are usually the ones that are very hard to confirm. One of the most famous examples of this is the Coelacanth, an order of fish that was believed to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago [3]. That is until a live individual was captured in 1938 near the mouth of the Chalumna river. The fish was quickly brought to the attention of M.C. Latimer, curator at East London Museum, and her friend Professor J. L. B. Smith, who would later correctly identify the fish’s identity [4]. Smith would then name the species after Latimer and the river Chalumna, thus Latimeria chalumnae [5].

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer's photograph taken alongside the preserved remains of the first Latimeria chalumnae specimen
Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the first Latimeria chalumnae specimen

Photo by East London Museum [13]

 
 

Decades later on 18 September 1997, the wife of marine biologist Mark V. Erdmann would spot a dead Coelacanth specimen being sold in a market at the volcanic island of Manado Tua in Indonesia [6]. Mark first thought that it was a specimen of L. chalumnae, but quickly had doubts as it was captured almost 10.000 km away from their nearest known population in the Comoros. Eight months later on 30 July 1998, a living Coelacanth specimen would be found in the net of local Indonesian fishermen Om Lameh Sonathan and his crews [7]. Mark was able to study the fish while it was alive, and would later publicize the discovery through the weekly international journal, Nature [8][9]. Another scientist named Laurent Pouyaud would later identify it as a new species, and would name it as Latimeria menadoensis [10].

Arnaz Metha, wife of Mark V. Erdmann, is diving beside a Coelacanth
Arnaz Metha, wife of Mark V. Erdmann, diving alongside a Coelacanth

Photo by Mark Erdmann [14]

 

While the discovery of the two coelacanth species was huge news to science, knowledge of the fishes’ existence and uniqueness caused them to be nearly hunted back to extinction. This hunting spree was driven by rich collectors and aquarium owners seeking live specimens, as well as Chinese medicine practitioners who baselessly theorized that the fluid of the fish that lived in the time of the dinosaurs could provide immortality [11]. The two species have since been categorized as a protected species, both in CITES (Convention on International Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and Indonesia's Minister of Forestry Regulation No. 7/1999, in hopes of preventing the species’ ‘second’ extinction [12].

 

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Sources:

[5] Smith, J. L. B. 1956. “Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth”. Longmans, Green & Co., New York.


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