Search engines: Serendipity - A living, breathing fossil
Simon Singh is an author, journalist and TV producer, specialising in science and Mathematics. His latest book is "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial", co-authored with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine.
Sunday 15 August 1999
The 1938 fossil-fish belonged to a thriving colony of coelacanths living off the Comoros Islands, between Madagascar and Mozambique. Evolutionary biologists were overjoyed that this community had survived, because coelacanths have limb- like fins, and offer an insight into the moment in history when marine life began to colonise the land, when fishes evolved into creatures with legs.
It seemed like a miracle that these archaic organisms had survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. So, there was a general sense of astonishment in 1964 when Dr Ladislao Reti, an Argentinian chemist, accidentally discovered evidence hinting at the existence of another colony. He spotted a silver fish ornament in a church near Bilbao, Spain. The limb-like fins, the peculiar skull and the puppy-dog tail clearly indicated that this was a model of a coelacanth, and initially it seemed as if the 10cm ornament was an attempt to cash in on the coelacanth mania that gripped the world. However, silver experts claimed that the fish was 200 years old and had been brought to Spain from Central America.
One explanation was that the silversmith had modelled the fish on fossils, but this seemed unlikely because of the level of detail on the ornament. In particular, the ornament had engravings on the scales that represented the white flecks found on the Comoros coelacanths. Such a detail could not have been discerned from a fossil. A more plausible explanation was that the silversmith worked from a real specimen, which meant that there must be a colony in the New World, perhaps in the Gulf of Mexico. Thereafter, biologists began to search for other coelacanth colonies. If they lived off East Africa and off Central America, then perhaps they lived all over the world, hidden away in the deepest reaches of the oceans.
In 1997, Mark Erdmann, a marine biologist, and Arnaz Mehta were married on Bali. They honeymooned on the Indonesian island of Manado, and while touring a local fish market they spied a coelacanth. Erdmann recognised the creature, and the couple went on to locate the Indonesian colony. As yet, the New World colony remains undiscovered.
filmIn Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jennifer Lawrence scores first UK top 40 single with Hunger Games track 'The Hanging Tree'
- 2 Shia LaBeouf claims he was raped during #IAMSORRY art installation performance
- 3 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
- 4 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
- 5 Michael Buerk wishes he killed Jimmy Savile when he had the chance - by pushing him overboard a cruise ship
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
Star Wars The Force Awakens trailer: What we know about JJ Abrams' film
Exodus Gods and Kings casting controversy: Ridley Scott would never cast 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
Jennifer Lawrence scores first UK top 40 single with Hunger Games track 'The Hanging Tree'
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Obama: The only people with the right to object to immigration are Native Americans
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Ukip mocked after mistaking Westminster Cathedral – for a mosque
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
David Cameron sets out immigration reforms: We should distrust Ukip and their 'snake-oil of simple solutions'