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Ancient Creature of the Deep

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: January 21, 2003

 

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It was thriving long before the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and scientists thought it had died out more than 65 million years ago. But in 1938, fishermen on a South African trawler netted a massive, scaly, blue-gray fish, and suddenly the long-extinct creature from the depths was back, stunning scientists and capturing headlines across the world. In "Ancient Creature of the Deep," NOVA tells the story of the coelacanth, the most famous of all "living fossils."

The coelacanth story has more improbable twists than a crime thriller. The chance discovery in 1938 was topped by a bizarre stroke of fate in 1997, thousands of miles away from the original find. A marine biologist was casually strolling through a fish market in Indonesia when he spotted a new subspecies lying on a slab in a fish market. That find triggered a renewed hunt for the elusive creature in the wild. When a submersible finally revealed the fish's underwater lair, scientists were greeted with video images of coelacanths performing a bizarre "headstand" dance in the depths.

But having survived the theorized meteor strike that killed off the dinosaurs, will this hardy creature now withstand the attention from museums, aquariums, and media, all eager to acquire a specimen of their own?

It all started on December 22, 1938, when Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of a small natural history museum near the tip of South Africa, spotted an unusual specimen on the deck of a fishing trawler that had just returned with a pile of sea life netted after a freak storm. "From underneath this crowd there was this one fin sticking out—this blue fin," Latimer tells NOVA more than 60 years after the event. "I thought, 'What on Earth could this be?' ... There was this beautiful, beautiful fish. Iridescent colors ... five feet long ... rough scales ... big blue eyes, and these peculiar limb-like fins—something that I've never seen in a fish in my life."

When she got it back to her museum, Courtenay-Latimer made a sketch and sent it to a friend for identification. The friend was Professor J.L.B. Smith, a chemist and avid amateur fish expert at Rhodes University in nearby Grahamstown. Smith was amazed when he got the drawing and arranged to visit Latimer as soon as possible—by which time a taxidermist had stuffed the mystery fish and discarded its viscera for lack of a way to preserve them. (For more on the pair's correspondence, see Moment of Discovery.)

"Lass," he told her on confirming his wild hunch that it was an animal previously known only from fossils millions of years old, "this fish will be on the lips of every scientist in the world. It's a coelacanth!" In his official report, Smith named the new genus Latimeria after its discoverer. Finding it, Smith wrote, "was like walking down the street and running into a dinosaur."

Desperate to get his hands on another specimen so he could study its insides, Smith posted a reward all along the east African coast. Fourteen years passed before he received a telegram that a coelacanth may have turned up in a fisherman's catch in the Comoros archipelago, which at the time was a French colony. Smith's journey to inspect and retrieve the fish is straight out of a Tom Clancy novel—with a plane on loan from the South African prime minister, an aircrew suspicious of their passenger's sanity, a clandestine meeting, a delivery of cash, and then an escape with the prize just ahead of French customs officials.

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About the program

At first glance, the coelacanth may look like just another fish. But it's altogether different (See Anatomy of the Coelacanth).

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Ancient Creature of the Deep Web Site Content
Moment of Discovery

Moment of Discovery
Relive the excitement of the coelacanth's first appearance.

Other Fish in the Sea

Other Fish in the Sea
The coelacanth is only the most famous of the "fossil fish."

Anatomy of the Coelacanth

Anatomy of the Coelacanth
Almost everything about its design is unusual.

Coelacanth Quiz

Coelacanth Quiz
Test your knowledge with this illustrated true-false quiz.



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