Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the Coelacanth, c.1938.

Discovery of a Living Fossil

Discovery of a Living Fossil

It was the morning of 22 December 1938. A call went in for Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, its curator at the East London Museum in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. He asked local trawlermen to alert him to anything unusual in their catches, and Captain Hendrik Goossen did something for him by casting his net in 40 fathoms near the mouth of the Chalumna River. He wasn’t sure what.

Courtenay-Latimer headed for the dock. On board, she passed through sharks, starfish, seaweed, and sponges. Then he saw. The most beautiful fish he had ever seen, he thought, ‘like a big Chinese jewel’: five feet long, pale violet-blue, white-spotted and iridescent, covered with hard scales, four limb-like fins and a tail plus a fit for puppy.

But Courtenay-Latimer didn’t know what that was. He telephoned James Smith, the nearest expert at Rhodes University. There was no answer. The next day he sent him a description of his ‘most strange looking specimen’ and a sketch. Smith was on leave.

Courtenay-Latimer was trapped. There was no interest in the museum. ‘You are making such a fuss about it, but it is nothing but a rock cod’, said its president. The city had two refrigeration facilities large enough to store it, one of them being a morgue. Neither of those would help, so she went to a local taxidermist. Together they wrapped the fish in formaldehyde-soaked newspaper and a sheet. In the summer season, oil starts dripping dangerously from its body.

When Smith finally received Courten-Latimer’s letter on January 3, he immediately thought of a coelacanth extinct for 70 million years. Arriving in East London on 16 February, they were convinced the moment they saw it. ‘The first sight hit me like a white-hot explosion’, he recalled.

he announced the discovery in natureQuoting Pliny the Elder: ‘Ex Africa semper eliquid novi’, there is always something new outside Africa. he named it Latimeria chalumnae In honor of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the river that showed its ancient wonder.

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