Fishing Lines: Catching up with the one that got away for 140 million years

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Two Indonesian fishermen, dangling lines from a dugout canoe, have just made the most important catch of the decade. Fishing off the island of Sulawesi, the duo hauled in a fish that should have been extinct 140 million years ago.

The 110lb specimen is not the first coelacanth to be caught in recent times. That happened in 1938 off the Comoros Islands, near South Africa, and created worldwide headlines. What makes this one so special is that it is a different species.

The coelacanth's tale is arguably the best fishing story of all time. They first appeared more than 400 million years ago, before even the dinosaurs. It seems unthinkable that they are still around. But several have now been caught.

Since that first capture off the Comoros, they have turned up off Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mozambique. All have been the same species, latimeria chalumnae (named after Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young curator of a South African museum who found and identified the species). What makes the Indonesian capture exceptional is that it is a latimeria menadoensis, only the second of this species to be identified.

But behind the coelacanth's Lazarus story lies a far darker tale. Museums have been desperate to acquire one. Rich Chinese have muddied the water even further, offering vast amounts for a specimen in the belief that eating one will give longevity. (Would you really want to live for 140 million years?)

When it seemed the Comoros was the only place to find them, the coelacanth quest caused huge problems for local islanders. Catching one could make them rich beyond their wildest imaginings, so all the fishermen set out after coelacanths, and stopped providing fish for the local villages.

Coelacanths are now the subject of several books, but how the first one was discovered is by far the most riveting yarn.

Three days before Christmas in 1938, Courtenay-Latimer was beavering away when the phone rang. That was a novelty: it had only been installed two days earlier. The manager of a local trawler fleet told her that one of his ships had more than a ton of sharks for her to dissect.

She was tempted to turn down the offer. She was hoping to put together a fossil of a rare dinosaur that she and a friend had excavated before the holidays. But she went along anyway, not expecting anything more than the usual batchof specimens.

But while sorting through the pile of dead things, she noticed a blue fin. Sixty years later, she recalled the moment vividly. "I picked away the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was more like a big china ornament, covered in hard scales, with four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy-dog tail."

She put the 127lb fish in a sack and took it back to her museum. But how to preserve it?

She put it on a handcart and wheeled it to the local hospital, where the man in charge of the mortuary refused to put a fish among the cadavers. The museum's chairman dismissed it as nothing more than an unusual rock cod. It looked like she would have to throw it away.

Next week, I'll tell you how her determination made history.