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A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor – 400 million years old – a four-limbed dinofish!
In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman’s trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth – a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link – the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century’s greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.
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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 McNameeAbout the Author:
Samantha Weinberg, 31, is a writer and journalist of South African extraction who was born and brought up in London. She was features editor of Harpers and Queen and has written for most daily broadsheets.
She is author of Last of The Pirates (Cape 1994) .
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