Coelacanth display wows

2010-03-09 21:43
Bernard Mackenzie of the SA Institute for Aquatic biodiversity is seen with the Coelacanth in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Johann Hattingh, Sapa)

Bernard Mackenzie of the SA Institute for Aquatic biodiversity is seen with the Coelacanth in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Johann Hattingh, Sapa)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Johannesburg - "Sheesh" and "wow" were some of the comments passing over "Old Four Legs" the Coelacanth as it lay in one-and-a-quarter metre splendour in a propanol bath at Wits University on Tuesday.

"As a kid I learnt about this in matric. I love them because they are such discreet creatures," said first year health sciences student Gillian Moodley, gazing at the prehistoric fish whose body had changed from its natural jet blue with silver splodges to amber, from the preservative.

"It's the iconic marine fish - a celebrity fish," laughed Bernard Mackenzie, research assistant for the SA Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity as he patiently and repeatedly pointed out and explained aspects of the pectoral fins that resemble a giant turkey drumstick, and the scales as large as 50 cent pieces.

He and the centre's curator Caroline Crump excitedly finished each other's sentences as they took turns explaining what all the fuss was about.

Not very useful

It can't be eaten because it causes diarrhoea and its only commercial use, according to fishermen, appears to be the rough scales which are used to sandpaper the inner tubes of bicycle tyres so that a puncture repair patch will stick.

The specimen on display at Wits was caught in the Comores in 1989 and given to South Africa for research.

Mackenzie does not know the exact history of that particular specimen, but speculates that, like other recent finds, it may have been caught inadvertently by fishermen who, through a combination of fish stock depletion and economic pressures, were casting their nets deeper and wider.

It was in that way that another Coelacanth resurfaced in 1938 off the coast of South Africa.

First catch

I&J trawler captain Hendrik Goosen was examining his crew's catch of the day in the Eastern Cape in 1938, and decided that this was one fish that was too unusual to be a chip accompaniment.

He contacted the director of the East London museum, Dr Marjorie Courtenay Latimer and told her of his find.

"The taxi guy said 'I am not taking you back to the museum with that big, dirty fish'," recounted Crump, of the newly-appointed and resource-strapped Courtenay Latimer's attempts to get the vast fish back to her office.

"She did not have money for a preservative, there were no cellphones in those days, imagine how she must have battled to get word through quickly while trying to preserve it," continued Crump.

Later, after making contact with JLB Smith, an ichthyologist at Rhodes University, he finally confirmed with his sceptical international colleagues that the unusual catch of the day was in fact a fish that scientists thought was extinct.

The missing link

"It was just incredible that there was a combination of the right people at the right time," Crump said.

Once thought extinct, this fish has elements that would associate it with the "missing link" between fish and amphibians, like the humerus (upper arm bone)-type bones in its fins. But it shows no sign of developing a lung, so scientists continue to be fascinated by it.

As soon as the university heard that a Coelacanth was coming up to Gauteng for a climate change conference, they leapt at the chance of a two-day cameo appearance in their department.

Nestling in the tank, among the displays of pinned bugs and butterflies, this now protected species is thought to predate dinosaurs by 200 million years, and thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. It likes temperatures of between 14ºC and 21ºC, scuttles along the ocean bed using its pectoral, pelvic, anal, dorsal and cordal fins alternately - which sets it apart from other fish - to trawl for food, it's huge jaw-like gills opening wide to swallow its prey whole.

They also have giant glowing eyes that latch onto the available light in the caves they like to inhabit.

With about 700 left in the world, with some found in Sodwana on South Africa's north coast and another species in Indonesia, Mackenzie comments: "That's not a lot of fish," as more people stream in to catch a glimpse before he takes it back to the Eastern Cape.

The exhibition, at the University's Oppenheimer Building, ends on Wednesday at 20:00.

Read more on:    science  |  animals

Read News24’s Comments Policy


Inside News24


Joburg hot spots for cocktails, craft beer, tapas and wine!

It’s the season to be jolly – so we’ve rounded up some new Joburg hot spots!


I love summer.24

Christmas lingerie to make this festive season the best one ever!
13 things you might not know about Disneyland
The craziest deaths of 2014
How to make this a sensual, sexy summer!

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go! - shop online today

2DAYS ONLY – 30% off Appliances

Coffee makers, blenders, fans, juicers and more. T&Cs apply. Shop now!

2 DAYS ONLY – 40% off books

Get 40% off when you buy 2 books. For two days only! T&Cs apply. Buy now!

Up to 50% off on outdoor gear

Save on chairs, blankets, cooler bags, umbrellas and more. Shop now!

Save on Samsung

Cameras, mobile phones, TVs, Tablets and more. While stocks last. Shop now!

Grand Theft Auto 5

Now available on PS4, Xbox One and PC from R649. Buy now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25


There is so much going on around you and inside your head. You may want to take your ideas to the next level. Romance may more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.