Although I didn’t have time in December between my moves and the holidays, I’m excited to make another post talking about animals with interesting stories. Last time we talked about the California condor, now, we are heading to the Indian ocean to meet a very special fish.

Before we start, a small disclaimer with about this post: there are actually two (living) species of coelacanth, the West Indian (Latimeria chalumnae) and the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis), but for this post, I will speak of them as one species for simplicity sake.

Don’t be intimidated by the spelling, coelacanth is actually easy to pronounce: see-la-can-th. But what the devil is it?! They are one of the most ancient animals on earth with their evolutionary history dating back 400 million years since taking its present form… that’s older than the first dinosaurs!

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Photo by Peter Scoones

These fish were thought to have gone extinct millions of years ago until they were rediscovered in the 1930s2. However, these fish are elusive and we haven’t been able to learn much about them since and its place in the evolutionary timeline is still highly debated3. They have unique features such as paired lobe fins that extend away from its body like legs and an electrosensory rostral organ4 and are considered a transitional species between fish and tetrapods5.

Just like most other marine species, this “living fossil” is threatened by human activities. Coelacanths can be caught as bycatch6 in oilfish operations and injured or killed. Relatively recently, a photo of a coelacanth with a trash in its stomach appeared on Twitter causing outrage7. This species could be the key to answering big unanswered questions in evolutionary history that outlives humans, yet we are actively making choices to harm these animals.

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Tweet by @Seasaver

This is a prime example of the conservation philosophy that we don’t really know how many different species are out there (or even the exact population of rare species like the coelacanth), especially in the vast ocean, and that if we’re not careful, we may kill off amazing species before they’re even discovered.

Notes and sources

1 Johanson, Z.; Long, J. A; Talent, J. A; Janvier, P.; Warren, J. W (2006). “Oldest coelacanth, from the Early Devonian of Australia”Biology Letters2 (3): 443–6.

2 National Geographic, Coelacanth

3 Smithsonian, Coelacanth

4 rostral: situated or occurring near the front end of the body, especially in the region of the nose and mouth

5 Meyer, Axel (1995). “Molecular evidence on the origin of tetrapods and the relationships of the coelacanth”Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Submitted manuscript). 10 (3): 111–116.

6 bycatch: the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species

7 IFL Science, “Depressing photo shows that even deep see living fossil can’t escape ocean trash”

Photo by Laurent Ballesta

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