Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cryptozoology History: The Coelacanth


As a researcher of the unexplained, I understand how important our work is. For naysayer's who do not recognize Cryptozoology as an actual science, researchers tend to use successful discoveries to prove the validity of their work. There have been a handful of discoveries scattered throughout the past centuries that lend credence to cryptozoological research and as history has shown, there are more to follow. Here is one of the stories of a monumental finding that has reshaped the zoological mainstream, as we know it today.
One of the most unique and mysterious creatures in the animal kingdom has a modern day history steeped in science and popular imagination, the fabulous Coelacanth ("see-la-kanth"), that 400 million year old "living fossil" fish, survives. Pre-dating the dinosaurs by millions of years and once thought to have gone extinct with them, the Coelacanth was "discovered" alive and well in 1938 although not reported on publicly until 1939.
In December 1938, Captain Hendrick Goosen, of the trawler Nerine, contacted Marjorie Courtenay Latimer curator of a tiny museum in the port town of East London, northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. Captain Goosen provided her with all of the unusual specimens to research at her museum. What they didn't know was that their catch that day would eventually change history. While searching through the catch of the day, she noticed a strange fish, roughly five feet long, pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings. Having no idea of what type of fish it was Marjorie rushed back to the museum to do some research.
Raking through the few reference books on hand, she found a picture that led her to a seemingly impossible conclusion. Her specimen bore similarities to a prehistoric fish, particularly in the structure of the head and the tri-lobed shape of the tail. She made a rather crude sketch of the creature, which she mailed, along with a description, to Professor J.L.B. Smith, chemistry teacher at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.
After first being dismissed as a common rock cod, many members of the museum staff were overwhelmed when they received the historic telegram on January 3, 1939. Professor Smith writes in a now famous cable: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED." However, in an attempt to preserve the fish by mounting it, the innards had been discarded.
A search for them in the museum and town trash bins proved fruitless. Even photographs taken of the preparation had somehow been spoiled. Smith did not arrive did not arrive at the East London museum until February 16, where he could finally view this discovery. He identified the fish immediately as a coelacanth or a member of what must be a living coelacanth species. This fish would soon be called the "most important zoological find of the century." A living dinosaur, it was said, would be no more amazing than this incredible discovery.
After a local newspaper reporter was allowed to take a single photograph of the mounted coelacanth, the picture soon appeared around the world. Smith, Courtenay-Latimer, and the coelacanth became overnight celebrities. When a public viewing for one day only was arranged, 20,000 visitors are said to have shown up. Unfortunately, there was a lot of work left to be done. With no internal organs left from the East London specimen, many questions remained unanswered. Smith was soon obsessed with finding a second intact specimen. Speculating that the fish had drifted down from the north on the Mozambique current, he had a reward notice with a picture of the first specimen posted among the East African coast up as far as Kenya. A decade went by with no response. Smith continued a long-term project of cataloging the fishes of the Indian Ocean. It was during this period that the myth of the coelacanth as a deep ocean fish took hold in the popular and scientific imagination.
Expeditions from Europe scoured the ocean depths in search of coelacanths. But Smith remained convinced that the fish's physiognomy and blue color made it a lower reef predator and not a true deep-water fish. The search continued for a second live specimen until December 1952 when Captain Eric Hunt, who helmed the vessel, the Nduwaro landed in the port of Mutsamudu on the Comorian island of Anjouan. Two Comorans carrying a hefty bundle approached him. One, Ahamadi Abdallah, had caught by hand-line what the locals called a "mame" or "Gombessa", a heavy grouper-like fish that turned up on their lines from time to time. This was the break Smith had been searching for, after 14-years of searching, a second specimen had indeed been found.Smith now had his second specimen, organs intact, and the familiarity of the natives with this creature meant that at least one location of the coelacanth's habitat had been discovered.
Therefore, if you are ever in the Comoro islands, which lie midway between Tanzania and Madagascar remember that Coelacanths spend the day resting in underwater caves between 300 and 700 Feet deep. They hover without touching each other or the cave walls and they come out to feed only at night.

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