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The Remarkable Discovery of the Coelacanth

#11 Science in History

22 December 1938

The 'Living Fossil' that provides insight into evolution

The discovery of the coelacanth is one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries of the 20th century. The coelacanth is a primitive fish that was thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It's December 1938 and South African museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, receives a call from a local fisherman who had caught a strange fish (she was always on the lookout for novel specimens). Marjorie recognized the fish as something special and sent a sketch of it to an ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith. Smith identified the fish as a coelacanth, a species that had been thought to be extinct for millions of years.

Smith and Courtenay-Latimer travelled to the fishing village of East London, South Africa, to examine the fish. They confirmed that it was indeed a coelacanth, and the news of the discovery spread quickly.

Since then, more coelacanths have been found in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa and in the Comoros Islands. The coelacanth is now considered a living fossil, and its discovery has provided scientists with valuable insight into the evolution of fish.


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