A Fish Caught in Time : The Search for the Coelacanth

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9780060194956: A Fish Caught in Time : The Search for the Coelacanth

Just before Christmas in 1938, the young woman curator of a small South African museum spotted a strange-looking fish on a trawler's deck. It was five feet long, with steel-blue scales, luminescent eyes and remarkable limb-like fins, unlike those of any fish she had ever seen. Determined to preserve her unusual find, she searched for days for a way to save it, but ended up with only the skin and a few bones.

A charismatic amateur ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith, saw a thumbnail sketch of the fish and was thunderstruck. He recognized it as a coelacanth (pronounced see-la-kanth), a creature known from fossils dating back 400 million years and thought to have died out with the dinosaurs. With its extraordinary limbs, the coelacanth was believed to be the first fish to crawl from the sea and evolve into reptiles, mammals and eventually mankind. The discovery was immediately dubbed the "greatest scientific find of the century."

Smith devoted his life to the search for a complete specimen, a fourteen-year odyssey that culminated in a dramatic act of international piracy. As the fame of the coelacanth spread, so did rumors and obsessions. Nations fought over it, multimillion-dollar expeditions were launched, and submarines hand-built to find it. In 1998, the rumors and the truth came together in a gripping climax, which brought the coelacanth back into the international limelight.

A Fish Caught in Time is the entrancing story of the most rare and precious fish in the world--our own great uncle forty million times removed.

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Review:

In 1938, an alert young South African museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer came upon a curious specimen in a fisherman's nets: a fish with "four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy dog tail," one that she thought resembled not a living being so much as a china ornament. When she could turn up no written descriptions of the find, she turned to other scientists for help, touching off a worldwide wave of interest in the creature that would come to be called the "coelacanth," long thought to be extinct, and now celebrated as one of the world's oldest species.

That interest took many forms, writes journalist Samantha Weinberg in her entertaining and instructive case study in scientific detective work. It spurred the development of new deep-sea craft to explore the farthest reaches of the ocean; it touched off more than one controversy over the coelacanth's lineage, and even over which nation claimed sovereignty over its oceanic haunts; and it launched or advanced the careers of dozens of researchers. The coelacanth continues to make news. In 1998, a young American scholar found a specimen in Indonesia, far from the western Indian Ocean waters where the coelacanth was thought to dwell. Although some scientists decried the discovery as a hoax at worst and an aberration at best, the find showed that the creature's range was widespread. It demonstrated, too, that international cooperation was necessary if the coelacanth were to be protected in the future, "continuing to exist," as Weinberg writes, "after this extraordinary duration of time." --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Samantha Weinberg is a British writer and traveler. She has reported from the four corners of the world for American, African, and European newspapers and magazines. She divides her time between her suitcase and a thatched cottage in Wiltshire, England.

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