[26 February 2007]
OK, I admit: I love fishing; hell, some would say I’m obsessed with the sport. And logic follows I must love fish, too. That’s right: I love finding them, catching them, eating them, watching them, and studying them…all activities that occupy lots of my time. I’ve told friends before, with a serious smirk, in my next life I’ll be an ichthyologist. With a less serious smirk, I also tell them this: “Hey, you see this right here (pointing to my neck) – that’s not a hickey; that’s a gill!”
Jokes and introductions aside, one of the more fascinating finned creatures to enter the collective consciousness of popular culture in recent years has been the prehistoric coelacanth (that’s “see-la-kanth”). With ancestral and genetic links to fish and amphibians from the Devonian Period (400-360 million years ago), this fish is a cryptozoologist’s dream come true. And apparently, scientists are not its only fans.
Latimer and \“Old Four Legs\” image from ScienceCases.org
Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, a South African curator and biologist operating a small museum, originally discovered the coelacanth in the Comoros Islands near Madagascar in 1938. Notified by telephone that local fisherman Hendrik Goosen had landed an unusual fish, Latimer visited the docks. This extraordinary fish lay there, five-foot long, replete with its pale blue hue, iridescent sheen, white spots, hard-as-wood scales, and four unusually long, “limb-like” fins. Latimer approached the fish, wiped away layers of slime, asked the locals some questions, and Latimer and scientists since have been fascinated. The elusive, deep-ocean dwelling coelacanth has since been intentionally spotted and unintentionally caught by scuba divers and commercial anglers primarily in the Western Indian Ocean off the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, and Madagascar, but sightings have also emerged as far east as Indonesia.
Photo from Jocara.net
Until that day in 1938, the fish, which boasts an adult weight of approximately 175 pounds and can grow to 75 inches, was thought long extinct, known only in its fossilized form. Soon after Latimer’s discovery, scientists marveled at its biological implications, because the creature is considered the missing piece to the evolutionary puzzle connecting fish to amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The coelacanth’s mystique transcended the annals of science and began its cultural consciousness’ Walk of Fame in 1998, when a University of California-Berkeley biologist, Mark Erdmann, proved that history does repeat itself. Erdmann was honeymooning in Indonesia when his wife essentially recreated Latimer’s experience. At a fish market in Sulawesi, she noticed a strange fish that had been caught in a deep-water shark net; she pointed it out to Mark, they asked the local anglers a few questions, and the rest is, well, history, again.
Since Erdmann’s later discovery, which scientists eventually learned was a slightly different type of coelacanth than the one Latimer found, the fish has received international attention. But scientists consider the coelacanth’s existing population in jeopardy due to accidental kills caused by commercial fishermen’s nets, and subsequently, many funds have been allocated for coelacanth conservation and research efforts. Due to these vigilant efforts and the fish’s unique history and biology, it now symbolizes in popular culture many of our own cherished characteristics and obsessions that are often dulled by commercialization, technology, and publicity; that’s right, the ancient coelacanth’s modern-day repute includes strength, perseverance, mystery, eccentricity, environmentalism, and privacy.
With nicknames as lively as “dino-fish”, “the living fossil”, and “old four legs”, the coelacanth’s physical features are remarkable. Since they live in several hundred feet of water, the coelacanth’s dark blue hue is perfect for deep-ocean camouflage, and its pink and white spots, well, whatever their evolutionary purpose, at least help humans distinguish one coelacanth from another. The fish has a joint in the skull that allows it to move its upper jaw vertically, and combined with its unique muscular structure underneath its lower jaw, it can pack a potent bite and move its head in surprising ways; they are known to prey on very large fish. Also in its snout is an unusual sac allowing it to detect electrical currents and prey. However, the fish itself is unappetizing because of its oily composition; in fact, its scales release mucous and contain denticles, the hard, protective scale coverings similar in texture to teeth that are also found on sharks. Brush against one…OUCH! Its swim bladder is fat-filled, unlike most fish, which have gas-filled bladders; this unique feature affects its buoyancy and helps it dwell in the deep-sea.
Clearly, the fins are its strangest feature. Its diamond-shaped caudal, or tail fins, resemble a paddle and look nothing like the more triangular caudals of more “conventional” fish; the coelacanth has a posterior caudal fin that can only be described as a mini-tail within a tail. The unusually large anal and second dorsal fins, along with its pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins, resemble flippers more than fins. Where they connect with the fish’s body, they are meaty, almost like a fingerless hand in a weird glove, but then extend into the bony, transparent webbing we’re accustomed to in so many other fish. The impression is bizarre; one can easily see the links to a turtle’s front feet or the webbed feet of a duck, and one cannot help but think the coelacanth was held hostage at some strange evolutionary crossroads. Evolutionists believe these unusual fin structures, along with its other musculoskeletal oddities, link the coelacanth to creatures that evolved from fish into reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
Photo from Jocara.net
The French scientist Louis Agassiz in 1836 first identified and described the coelacanth in Poissons Fossiles, his book about the fossil records of fishes. He named the fish coelacanthus for the Greek word “coel”, which means space, and “acanthus”, which means spine. Thus, the fish has space in its vertebrae and other bones, a unique hollow structure that further distinguishes it from other fishes. Beyond this description, scholars accepted its extinction status as fact until Latimer’s discovery in 1938. In essence, the coelacanth is a potent example that there are some living creatures that can elude our best science for centuries. Essentially, the fish is a symbol for science’s limitations, which is perhaps one reason why so many artists in popular culture have embraced it.
This fish is ugly in the best sense of the word. The popularity of television shows such as Ugly Betty have shown that not everyone feels they need to be beautiful. Scrap the botox injections, facelifts, nose jobs, and tanning salons…looking good isn’t everything – it hardly guarantees one longevity. In fact, the sheer rebelliousness of accepting who or what you are is profoundly appealing, and a monstrous fish like the coelacanth that flourishes in its abnormalities flaunts punkish attitude.
Of course, everything living eventually perishes in its original form, evolution reveals. And some species have evolved dramatically. For example, we know black, grizzly, and brown bears were once miacids; primitive, marten-like carnivores that eventually evolved into various species of dissimilar carnivores including mongooses, hyenas, and wolves. But some species defy elaborate evolutionary bifurcations and remain in what is essentially their original state. Like sturgeons and sharks, coelacanths have remained in their primitive molds without significant modifications to their biological makeup. And this primitive state inspires both awe and fear.
The coelacanth’s prehistoric mug and biological oddities conjure memories from our primordial past that remind us of the discomforting reality that we all share an evolutionary history with some downright homely, bizarre creatures. The visceral fears such creatures activate in our unconscious are the stuff of nightmares. However, these primordial-looking creatures also display an enduring toughness that reminds us that extreme adaptation is not always required. With a good, original design, it is at least remotely possible that a few organisms or models can endure and resist change. In a fast-paced world full of flux, that is a welcomed thought.
Some might say the elusive coelacanth, in spite of its primordial ugliness, has attained rock star status. One provocative measuring stick for anything’s relevance in popular imagination is its appearance on stamps. If you’ve made it on a stamp, you’ve made the Big Time: the coelacanth ranks high in this category. Madagascar, North Korea, the Ivory Coast, Guyana, Mozambique, Gambia, Turks & Caicos Islands, Kuwait, Abchasia, Liberia, Tanzania, the Comoros Islands, South Africa, and Poland have all issued stamps commemorating this magnificent creature.
According to Wikipedia, which has catalogued the fish’s pop culture popularity, the coelacanth makes regular appearances in video game and cartoon franchises. The Pokemon and Digimon anime franchises have characters inspired by the coelacanth. In Pokemon, the relicanth is an imaginary relative of the coelacanth that possesses many of its features including its habitat, scales, and fins. In Digimon, the coelamon is a fictional beast that kills opponents with its needle-like fins and claws. The following video games also showcase this Evolutionary Enigma from Down Under: Animal Crossing, Animal Crossing: Wild World, Darius, We Love Katamari, Me and My Katamari, Skies of Arcadia, Sega Marine Fishing, Half-Life, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, and not least, Terror from the Deep. The fish also has cameos in the television series Futurama, where the character Professor Hubert Farnsworth maintains an aquarium of coelacanths, and in the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, where the character Preston Whitmore also maintains coelacanths in an aquarium.
The coelacanth has also found its way into contemporary music as well, with the bands Shriekback, Deja Voodoo, Mr. Children, You and the Atom Bomb, Suns of the Tundra, and Polysics also giving it props in at least one of their songs. The fish was even referenced once in a Volkswagen commercial, where an individual remarked that he thought the full-sized spare tire was extinct. A mechanic replied, “That’s what they said about the coelacanth”.
Mr.Children - Coelacanth
(Lyrics to Mr.Children – Coelacanth can be read here )
At DinoFish.com, a website designed to promote coelacanth conservation and awareness sponsored by the Coelacanth Rescue Mission located in South Africa, one can learn all sorts of information about the fish and buy, of course, T-shirts, key chains, videos, and other souvenirs sporting its visage. The website is dedicated to providing information about the coelacanth, which is edging closer toward becoming endangered. Scientists believe there may only be a few hundred fish left in its primary habitats. Although the fish is elusive, its limited numbers are still susceptible to commercial fishermen’s nets.
And thus, the coelacanth reveals its most endearing quality. As a prehistoric creature, it reminds us of several lessons: that natural history is alive and asynchronous, that not all organisms are susceptible to radical evolutionary changes, and that extinction and evolution are two mysteries science still has not mastered. But in the same breath, as our attention becomes increasingly more consumed by the coelacanth’s funky eccentricities, we are once again reminded of how fragile even this hardy life form is. While its longevity as a species is something we should envy, the real question is, as the fish’s status becomes more tenuous each year, what are the chances for our species? Looking at the coelacanth, we see a stark reflection of our own strengths and weaknesses.
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The author and a 22-pound Chesapeake Bay rockfish…not a coelacanth.