Coelacanth display wows

2010-03-09 21:43

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.