Coelacanth Fish Tops List of Prehistoric Animals Found Alive
The Prehistoric Coelacanth
The Coelacanth is an ancient fish, and the kind of creature science refers to as a Living Fossil. It’s also an example of something called the Lazarus Taxon. This is when a plant or animal seems to have vanished from the Earth, only to turn up again alive and well.
The Coelacanth swam at the time of the dinosaurs and was thought to have gone extinct along with them, about 65 million years ago.
For a while, the reputation of the Coelacanth was debated by those researchers who accepted it as an extant organism, and skeptics who did not believe the creature still existed. Despite local legends and stories from fishermen, until a few decades ago there still wasn’t enough proof to convince mainstream science that the fish was still alive. Of course today we know these Living Fossils exist, and there are plenty of pictures and even some video.
The discovery of a living Coelacanth was important to the fields of paleontology and marine biology, but also to the field of cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet proven to exist by science.
There are other examples of known animals once thought to be legends, such as the Giant Squid and Mountain Gorilla. Then there are those that will remain legends until more evidence surfaces to prove they are real, like Sasquatch or the Megalodon Shark. So, does the story of the Coelacanth make a strong enough case that there are still large, unknown animals out there to be discovered?
Discovery of a Living Fossil
Fishermen along the coast of South Africa had been catching the occasional Coelacanth for years. Known to them as the Gombessa, it has no value as food and is seen as bycatch rather than something they intentionally fish for. But back in 1938, when a museum official happened upon a recently caught specimen brought in by a South African fishing trawler, the fossil fish came back to life.
The original discovery was not without controversy. Because the specimen was not properly preserved many academics dismissed the findings, claiming a case of mistaken identity. It took until 1952 for the next specimen to surface before modern science fully embraced the idea that this fish was still around. Another species of Coelacanth was discovered in 1998, this time in the waters of Indonesia.
There are presently two species of extant Coelacanth, the West Indian and Indonesian, although some researchers speculate there could be more to be found. For now, it’s considered an endangered species, with an estimated thousand or so wild specimens out there.
It was called a Living Fossil because its present-day form appears unchanged from the specimens in the fossil record. Researchers have discovered that’s not exactly true, and there are a few evolutionary divergences of note. Furthermore, while the West Indian and Indonesian species appear nearly identical, there are genetic differences.
The Coelacanth prefers deep, dark, cold water, which explains in part why we know so little about it. In the daytime it remains in caves, but come out at night to feed. They are lobe-finned fishes, related to the Lungfish.
All in all, except for the part where it appeared to be extinct for millions of years and then turned up again, this sounds like a pretty boring fish. So why should we care?
Why the Coelacanth Is Important
The fish was an important find for a few reasons. The Coelacanth is a very primitive species, and many researchers believe it is closely related to Tetrapods. Who are Tetrapods? Well, we are, for one.
Tetrapods are the earliest four-limbed vertebrates and those species that came after. That includes mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Tetrapods evolved from primitive lobed-finned fishes, and some say the Coelacanth is actually more closely related to mammals than it is to most other modern fish.
So, this isn’t just some weird fish someone found, but in fact an interesting piece of the Earth’s evolutionary puzzle. Somewhere back in time the first Tetrapods crawled, flopped or squirmed onto land, and everything we see today above the waves evolved from that day forward. The Coelacanth can help researchers to understand more about how that happened.
The discovery of this Fossil Fish has allowed biologists to look back some 400 million years, to the time when only the oceans held life. But there’s another reason the Coelacanth is important, and this one is not as widely embraced by mainstream science. The Living Fossil, raised from the dead like Lazarus, is a strong indicator that it’s still possible to discover amazing animals on this planet.
The Coelacanth is a cryptozoologist’s best friend.
Swimming with the Coelacanth
The Living Fossil and Cryptozoology
Most of the creatures studied by cryptozoologists are tethered to real science in some logical way. These aren’t fantastic creatures out of fairy tales; they are animals that may exist, but simply haven’t been officially discovered yet. For example, one theory about Sasquatch says it is an advanced species of ape, and it’s sometimes even referred to as the North American Great Ape.
Of course, skeptics dismiss the field of cryptozoology as pseudoscience, and refute any claims of bipedal apes, or monster sharks. But, with a little help from the Coelacanth, even the most resolute of nonbelievers have to admit it’s possible there are large creatures out there still to be discovered, and even possible there are creatures we believe extinct which may still exist.
The facts are: the Coelacanth is a big fish that grows to over six feet and can weigh 200 pounds. They live in groups, so where there is one there are several. Locals knew about them and even had a name for them. Even when the first specimen was found, many researchers were dubious that a fish extinct for 65 million years could still be around. Their total population is very small, and they live a long time.
This story sounds an awful lot like the saga of many other cryptids believed to be out there, tromping around in remote areas and unrecognized by science. In the case of the Coelacanth, the depth where it dwells is probably the main reason it remained hidden for so long. People just didn’t go down there.But couldn't the same be true for other large, presumably extinct sea creatures such as the megalodon shark?
The Legacy of the Coelacanth
“Consider the Coelacanth!” has become the battle cry of cryptozoologists under duress from ardent skeptics. If this beast has surfaced only recently, there’s no telling what kinds of amazing creatures might be lurking just out of the sight of mainstream biology. The Living Fossil offers hope that our world still has more to offer and that there are yet wonders to discover. In the dark jungles, foreboding forests and deep oceans there is still much to explore.
Of course, skeptics point out that nobody was looking for the Coelacanth when it came back to life. On the other hand, all kinds of expeditions have gone out in search of Sasquatch, but nobody has found definitive proof Bigfoot is real. It’s hard to find fault with those who refuse to believe until they see the evidence. Provable fact is, after all, the backbone of real science.
Theoretical implications aside, the Coelacanth gives us a view of our planet’s past, and some insight into how we came to be. The amazing process of evolution, from ocean to land, runs through this strange fish. With so few left in the wild, conservation efforts are underway to protect the Living Fossil and to find other populations scattered around the world.
After 65 million years it would be a shame to see the Coelacanth go extinct . . . yet again.