Tucked in the basement corner of the Vancouver Aquarium is a scary looking fish suspended in a mix of water and alcohol. This is a coelacanth (pronounced “seel-a-canth”) and, at 1.7 metres long and weighing 77 kilograms, it is one cool fish.
Perry Poon, the props coordinator at the Vancouver Aquarium, points to the fleshy lobe fins attached to the body through several bones. They look curiously like hands. “This end right here,” says Perry, pointing to the fish’s decaying snout “is a rostral organ so they can detect weak electrical fields. They can use that in total darkness to search for prey.” Another cool feature is a hollow fluid-filled notochord, in lieu of a backbone – a primitive feature in early vertebrates.
Coelacanth are seriously ancient: some 400 million years old, which is about 160 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the earth. Living coelacanths are often referred to as living fossils: organisms that have remained unchanged from ancient organism found in fossils. Until relatively recently, fossils were all that remained of the 90 species of coelacanth that once swam through oceans and freshwater. In 1938, the first living coelacanth was pulled from the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa. The dry-mounted stuffed fish still resides at the East London Museum in East London, South Africa.
The Vancouver Aquarium coelacanth was caught in 1971 and was preserved in formalin. The Vancouver Aquarium director, Dr. Murray Newman, attempted to capture a living coelacanth for display, but settled for a preserved coelacanth instead. Long-time Aquarium supporters the Grahams donated the coelacanth to the Aquarium in 1972. Above the display an ID card begins with the headline “Living Fossil.” Unfortunately, most visitors take that description literally, mistaking the fish for an actual fossil found in sedimentary rock. The coelacanth has indeed seen better days.
It’s evident that this specimen needs intervention if it’s going to survive in the after life. Glittery scales litter the bottom of the exhibit, as the coelacanth slowly decays. “They were saying that all the coelacanths are having this problem,” says Perry, who has talked with museums and institutions with coelacanths in alcohol and on display that are deteriorating. “The ones in the formalin they’re doing fine. It was in formalin when it arrived at the Aquarium and then they had to switch it over to alcohol.”
But Perry has a plan to extend the life of this now 47-year-old fish. By draining the liquid and raising the coelacanth out of the exhibit, he’ll dissect the animal and keep its skeleton for display.
“Are you feeling squeamish about dissecting this rotting fish?” I ask him. “No, I feel very enthusiastic to actually get it down because this is a large female. At the time, she was the largest female caught so she probably has eggs in there. And that’s one thing I want to see. I remember when we used to talk about the coelacanth on gallery tours and we carried around a grapefruit to show how big the yolk sac was. So she might have some in there. It could be a yolk sac with a little baby coelacanth on it.”
Marga Lopez, the exhibit design director supervising the transfer of the fish, says that visitors like the display, but they don’t quite know how to react to it. Transforming the deteriorating exhibit into a new and improved skeleton of the coelacanth will allow visitors to appreciate another side of this cool fish.
Laura Trethewey is the Vancouver Aquarium’s Senior Writer and Editor.