Navigation Menu+

The Story of Coelacanth


It also tells you a little bit about time and how we’re in a long now.  

So palaeontologists believed this fish – which is a way distant ancestor of all living land creatures, I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of years ago – it had seemed to have gone extinct, disappeared from the fossil record but in 1938, in South Africa a fish was put onto the harbour and, ah, a woman called Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was called by the captain of the ship to have a look at it, because she was the ichthyologist of the local East London Museum and often was interested in strange catches.  So all the captains knew her.

She went down to the harbour, she thought ‘What is this?  I’ve no idea’, wrote a letter to the head of the department, who was called Dr J.L.B. Smith, and said ‘I think this is quite weird’ and did a sketch and Smith wrote ‘I think you’ve discovered a coelacanth!’

And he wrote a book called ‘Old Four Legs‘, which is just full of these extraordinary – I’ve kept saying extraordinary today.  Life is extraordinary. – anyway, of amazing moments where his excitement builds; of going in to see the fish for the first time, it’s like…a ‘battery of wonder’ is what I described it as because when you hear the story of how it was rediscovered everyone just suddenly becomes alive with the amazement of this discovery and Smith talks about it in his book.  And there’s a fantastic book by Samantha Weinberg called ‘A Fish Caught in Time‘ which is just brilliant and it talks about the discovery by Smith and Courtenay-Latimer and the naming of the coelacanth as Latimeria chalumnae and how they looked for other species of coelacanth and how they’d been discovered in Indonesia and the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean, different communities of coelacanth, different, slightly different ways of behaving, but every time you read about this story you can’t help but just go ‘Woo!’  Because there are just fantastic little moments where, like, even David Attenborough was just ecstatic at meeting, seeing a coelacanth because they shouldn’t really be around anymore.  They should’ve disappeared but, you know, they’ve just been down there in the ocean, not really noticing anything else that’s changed about planet Earth over all these millions of years and, you know, great metaphor for those moments in our lives where we think ‘Oh, nothing will ever change’ and then suddenly everything does again.

So, ‘Old Four Legs: The Story of the Coelacanth’ by J.L.B. Smith: one of the great books of scientific adventure.  Stranger than science fiction!  And this is how he opens the whole book: ‘These are wonderful times and it is thrilling to be living now.’  Isn’t that brilliant, about how it feels to make a scientific discovery, and it’s full of the letters he writes to Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and sketches of the fish and his attempts to discover other colonies of coelacanth.  But as I say it, sort of, it also tells you a little bit about time and how we’re in a long now…you know about the clock of the long now?

So, out in the New Mexico desert – all cool things happen in the New Mexico desert – there’s a massive clock that’s ticking away and it was started in the year 01996, 1996 to most of us, but it decides ‘No, we’re going to add an extra zero because look at time as a longer, longer period’ and look at the moments in our lives as, well, they’re instantly short, they’re instantly over, and in fact our time here is pretty short but to the coelacanth, you know, this is just…every period of time is incredibly short.

And they’re cool fish.  They’ve got flip top skulls.  I’d like a flip top skull.