A fiftieth anniversary reflection on the living coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae: some new interpretations of its natural history and conservation status
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It all started about 400 million years ago, when representatives of a group of fish-like fleshy-finned creatures appeared in the fossil record (or was it through a childhood dream shared by all of us that we would one day study the coelacanth?). Many of the coelacanth's characters placed them close to the ancestry of terrestrial vertebrates. About 70 million years ago they disappeared from the fossil record. The discovery in 1938 of the first living coelacanth, in 1952 of the second and until now over 200 specimens parallels in excitement an encounter with a live dinosaur on a weekend walk, and in significance even more than that. For this year's 50th anniversary of the famous discovery of the first living coelacanth, we retraced the routes and visited the main actors of this zoological drama. New insights into coelacanth natural history were facilitated by novel interpretation of earlier data and our expeditions to the Comoro Islands, retracing the route of the second specimen, measuring unrecorded specimens, interviewing fishermen and describing their fishing crafts, and taking part in recent events on land and water near the only known habitat of the living coelacanth. Entry into this habitat and observations from the research submersible GEO opened up a new era in coelacanth research. Past studies of preserved specimens, which were caught as an incidental bycatch, were supplemented for the first time by studies of free-living coelacanths in their natural habitat. The first film footage taken from the submersible revealed the entirely unfishlike movements of this creature. Its mode of locomotion is a combination of flying and gliding, interspersed with head stands and belly-up drifts which appear to defy gravity. The narrow range of habitat in which the coelacanth has been encountered has led us to realize how vulnerable this ancient relict is. The members of our expeditions therefore cooperated in establishing an international organisation to coordinate efforts to conserve the coelacanth.
Key wordsComoro Islands Grand Comoro Anjouan History Living fossil Evolution Phylogenetic relationships Morphology Demography Reproduction Locomotion Habitat Predators and prey Gombessa Trade Endangered species Artisanal fishing Coelacanth Conservation Council
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