How the Coelacanth Works

Discovering the Coelacanth

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and J.L.B. Smith discovered the African coelacanth, illustrated here.
Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and J.L.B. Smith discovered the African coelacanth, illustrated here.

The discovery of the coelacanth is a bit miraculous when you consider the two main players in this drama: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young curator at a natural history museum in East London, South Africa, and J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry professor and amateur ichthyologist who worked at Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown. While neither was an expert in ancient fish, both almost instinctively knew they'd stumbled upon something quite important.

It was Dec. 22, 1938. The manager of a local trawler fleet called Courtenay-Latimer to see if she wanted to examine a load of fish hauled in that day, in case there were any worthy of display in her museum. Tucked amid the haul, which consisted mainly of sharks, was an intriguing blue limb-like fin. It was attached to a 5-foot- (1.5 meters)- long, heavily-scaled, blue-gray fish. The fish weighed 127 pounds (57 kilograms) and was alive when caught. Although neither Courtenay-Latimer nor the fishermen knew what it was, she felt it was significant and took it to the museum's taxidermist. She also contacted Smith, a friend and honorary curator of fishes for small museums in the area, and sent him a description and sketch of the fish [source: Tyson ].

Smith was captivated by the extraordinary fish, too, later writing, "I told myself sternly not to be a fool, but there was something about that sketch that seized on my imagination and told me that this was something very far beyond the usual run of fishes in our seas." [source: Tyson ].

But Smith couldn't easily travel to East London to see the fish — remember, this was South Africa in the late 1930s — and the pair's flurry of correspondence about what to do with the now-dead fish often crossed in the mail. So unfortunately, the mystery fish's skeleton and gills, important for positive identification, were thrown out. Still, once Courtenay-Latimer sent Smith several of its preserved scales he was able to determine it was a coelacanth. The fish was subsequently given the scientific name Latimeria chalumnae in honor of Courtenay-Latimer's role in its discovery [source: Tyson ].