Coelacanth slowly reveals its secrets

Posted: 06/30/2011 in all marine news

Matt Walker –

An odd-looking ancient fleshy fish continues to serve as a reminder of just how little we know about the natural world.

In 1938, scientists discovered the coelacanth, a large primitive deep-dwelling fish that was supposed to have been long, long extinct.

The fish provided an immediate link to our dim evolutionary past, resembling the lobe-fin fish that were likely the first to leave the water and take to land, ultimately begetting the amphibians, reptiles and mammals we see today, including the human race.

The fish’s discovery was a worldwide sensation, and the coelacanth remains famous to this day, its name synonymous with the concept of living fossils and great natural history discoveries.

But new research just published reveals, in its own way, just how little we still know about this fish, despite it being the subject of intensive scrutiny and excitement for more than 70 years.

A team of scientists based in France and Germany has just summarized the results of a 21 year study into coelacanths living in the Comoros Islands, in the western Indian Ocean.

That in itself is impressive.

After its initial discovery in South African waters, another was not sighted by western scientists until fourteen years later, when a few fish were found swimming off the Comoros. The fish was not filmed alive until the BBC serendipitously took some footage of one for the programme Life on Earth broadcast in 1979 (see video below) and the first photos of the fish in its natural habitat were not taken until 1988.

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