If only the coelacanth could talk, oh, the stories it would tell!
Alas, the one on display at the Vancouver Aquarium is preserved in isopropanol, so it won’t be doing any talking anytime soon.
Since that’s the case, it’s a good thing it has a mouthpiece in Keely L., an interpretive specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium. She may be best known for her love of octopuses, but it’s the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), pronounced “see-luh-kanth,” that she wants to highlight as April’s Staff Pick of the Month.
“I think my first impression of the coelacanth was that it was a big, cool, old-looking fish.”
She says not only does this fish fascinate with its strange features, but it also has a couple of special stories to tell. It’s a “living fossil” because it was thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs. But its discovery in 1938 by Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, and its description by Dr. J.L.B. Smith, proved the scientific world wrong.
“While most of the animals that lived in the Devonian period (about 400 million years ago) have disappeared, four animal groups that got their start in that age are still alive (today). This includes lobe-finned fishes, of which the coelacanth is a part of.”
Lobe-finned fishes have fleshy fins – it’s one of their distinguishing features and it marks them as “primitive” (meaning their kind has been around for millions of years).
Besides fin rays, their fins include bones covered in muscle, skin and scales. Take a close look at the coelacanth’s fin in the photo, and now think about the fins of a goldfish or salmon – these “modern” fishes’ fins are only made up of fin rays.
Coelacanths also have another feature that distinguishes them as a primitive fish: thick, bony scales.
The other fascinating story that Keely is keen to tell is how this particular specimen came to be at the Vancouver Aquarium. The Aquarium’s first executive director, Dr. Murray Newman, formed a team and planned an expedition to the Comoros, off the east coast of Africa, in 1971 to collect a live one for display.
They went where coelacanths were known to live, but they weren’t able to find a live one. The fact that coelacanths like to hang out in waters 200 metres deep might have had something to do with their bad luck.
Eventually, the team ended up purchasing a preserved coelacanth that had been accidentally caught earlier in the year by a local fisherman. That’s the same one you’ll see on display beside the AquaNews desk on the way down to the Wild Coast Underwater Viewing gallery.
This is the first Staff Pick of the Month which isn’t alive – but we promise it’s just as cool as our other picks.