Monday Book: 70-million-year-old fish fingers

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The Independent Culture
"IT WAS the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," Marjorie Courtney- Latimer remembers. Just before Christmas 1938, she was the enthusiastic young curator of the local museum at East London, on South Africa's south- east coast. The captain of a trawler had rung to tell her it had caught a peculiar fish, and she took a taxi to the wharf to look. Five feet long and weighing 127 pounds, the fish was a pale iridescent blue, flecked with white, and equipped with limb-like fins. It smelt, and the taxi driver didn't want it in his car, but Latimer insisted. she had never seen anything like it.

And nor had anyone else, it seemed. Scouring the standard reference books, she found no match for her specimen. The only creatures it resembled had died out 70 million years ago. Here was a genuine "living fossil", the sole survivor of an ancient order of fishes known as coelacanths.

What happens next makes a fascinating tale, mixing scientific intrigue, international politics and adventures on the high seas. Samantha Weinberg uses her journalistic skills to weave an entertaining and well researched account of coelacanth mania.

Latimer's discovery unleashed an international frenzy of interest in both popular and scientific circles. The coelacanth was cast as a "missing link" that promised to shed light on a great evolutionary event: the transition of back-boned animals from sea to dry land. This peculiar fish, with its distinctively lobed fins, was soon nicknamed "old four legs". It was clearly related to the enterprising lineage that long ago traded fins for limbs and ventured out of the primeval soup.

Given its apparent evolutionary significance, perhaps it's not surprising that in the postwar years every major museum and aquarium in the world sought a specimen, dead or alive. Local fishermen became bounty-hunters, vying for the pounds 100 reward offered by JLB Smith, the South African scientist who became obsessed with coelacanths as soon as he saw Latimer's find. He vowed to devote his life to finding an intact coelacanth; Latimer had been able to preserve little more than the skin and skeleton.

Smith plastered "wanted" posters advertising his reward up and down the East African coast. Success came at last on the Comoros, islands between Madagascar and Mozambique. With such an incentive, local fishermen soon perfected the knack of catching coelacanths in the deep waters round the islands. Alas, the fish never survived the experience - to this day no one has succeeded in keeping a captured coelacanth alive. However, Smith, along with scores of scientists all over the world, got the specimens that he wanted.

Early on, researchers ridiculed conservation fears and claimed a duty to science to capture more coelacanths. Gradually, however, the climate of scientific opinion shifted. Biologists began to acknowledge that they have no idea how many of these creatures remain in the ocean depths, nor how many could be killed each year without threatening the survival of the species. Although legislation finally put a stop to open trading in 1994, on the black market today a coelacanth is reputed to be worth US$2000 or more - five times the annual income of the average Comoran fisherman.

Weinberg touches only lightly on the current plight of the coelacanth and steers clear of heavy politics. Nor does she do more than hint that the coelacanth, no longer regarded as on the direct line to humanity, has been shunted to the sidelines in the evolutionary hall of fame. Instead, she makes the pathologically determined Smith - and his astoundingly devoted scientist-wife Margaret - the centrepiece of her story. Although her tone is always sympathetic, Weinberg paints a picture of a man so driven that he even sleeps next to his coelacanth.

She brings the story up to date with a gripping account of Hans Fricke's successful bid to film free-living coelacanths from purpose-built submersibles and ends with last year's unexpected discovery of another coelacanth population in Indonesia by Mark Erdmann, the young American biologist. On honeymoon in Sulawesi, he spied a coelacanth on sale in the local fish market.

And the saga is far from over. Rumours that the fish lurks off other islands in the more remote fringes of the Indian Ocean "will undoubtedly be spur enough for a whole new generation of adventurers and enthusiasts to print up their own reward posters and start searching", Weinberg says. Undoubtedly, too, the Comoran conservation battles are set to be exported elsewhere. No wonder, then, that Weinberg ends her engaging account with a recent remark from 91-year-old Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer: "Perhaps now it is time to leave the coelacanth in peace."

But the author stops short of spelling out the take-home message: that a fish that has outlived the dinosaurs could soon be hunted to extinction thanks to a lethal mixture of human greed and scientific curiosity.