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Ancient Creature of the Deep

Moment of Discovery
by Peter Tyson


Ancient Creature homepage

Three days before Christmas, 1938, in the South African coastal town of East London, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the young, black-eyed curator of the local natural history museum, got a phone call that would turn her world upside down and ultimately make her name known internationally. The events that followed that call sparked a series of urgent letters between Courtenay-Latimer and J.L.B. Smith, a chemistry professor and amateur ichthyologist at Rhodes University in the nearby town of Grahamstown. The letters chronicle the discovery she made, and he confirmed, of a creature thought extinct for at least 66 million years.

Here, relive those dizzying first days and weeks following recorded history's first appearance of the coelacanth. The letters capture the tingling sensation of sitting atop a scientific discovery of mind-boggling proportions. At the same time, they broadcast the frustrations both people felt in having to rely on the day's primitive communications system, which, in the end, seriously compromised proper scientific procedure and made the successful ushering of this long-lost fish from trawler deck to the scientific literature all the more remarkable. The letters, which have been edited to correct misspellings and grammatical errors, are reprinted with permission from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity in Grahamstown.

The call Courtenay-Latimer received was from the manager of a local trawler fleet whom she knew, saying he had a load of fish for her to examine for possible museum specimens. Courtenay-Latimer and her assistant took a taxi to the wharf, climbed aboard the 115-foot trawler Nerine, and began picking through a mound of fish, mostly sharks. Noticing a blue fin poking out of the pile, she pushed aside layers of fish and slime and saw what she later described as the most beautiful fish she had ever seen. About five feet long, it was a heavily scaled blue-gray creature with limb-like fins. A Scot trawlerman standing nearby told her that in more than 30 years of fishing he had not seen its like before. Courtenay-Latimer had no idea what it was either, but she sensed it was significant, so she eased it into a grain sack and brought it back to the museum's taxidermist, Robert Center. She then rang up her friend J.L.B. Smith, who served as honorary curator of fishes for small museums along the coast, but he was not in. When he hadn't returned her call by the next day, she wrote to him.

EAST LONDON,
South Africa.
23rd Dec. 1938

Dear Dr. Smith,

I had the most queer-looking specimen brought to notice yesterday. The Captain of the trawler told me about it so I immediately set off to see the specimen which I had removed to our Taxidermist as soon as I could. I however have drawn a very rough sketch, and am in hopes that you may be able to assist me in classing it.

It was trawled off the Chalumna coast at about 40 fathoms.

It is coated in heavy scales, almost armor-like, the fins resemble limbs, and are scaled right up to a fringe of filament. The spinous dorsal has tiny white spines down each filament. Note drawing inked in red.

I would be so pleased if you could let me know what you think, though I know just how difficult it is from a description of this kind.

Wishing you happiness for the season.

Yours sincerely,

M. Courtenay-Latimer

As Christmas came and went with no response from Smith, Courtenay-Latimer grew despondent. "I couldn't think about anything but the fish," she told Samantha Weinberg, author of A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, many years later, when Courtenay-Latimer was in her late 80s. "I checked the post every day and waited for a phone call, but there was no word from Smith."

The professor, as it turns out, was not in Grahamstown but rather 350 miles down the coast from East London at a house he owned with his wife in the seaside town of Knysna. He had gone there to recuperate from an illness and to correct a batch of his students' examinations. As a result, he did not receive Courtenay-Latimer's letter until January 3rd.

When he saw the crude sketch of the fish that she had included in the letter, Smith later wrote, "a bomb seemed to burst in my brain....I told myself sternly not to be a fool, but there was something about that sketch that seized on my imagination and told me that this was something very far beyond the usual run of fishes in our seas." Realizing with dread that 11 days had passed since Courtenay-Latimer mailed her letter and that anything might have happened to the specimen, he fired off a telegram to her: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS [OF] FISH DESCRIBED." Then he went home and wrote her a letter.

Written from KNYSNA.
3rd January 1939

Dear Miss Latimer,

Thanks for your letter of the 23rd last which has just reached me. Your news is most interesting indeed, and I am very sorry that I am not in Grahamstown or I should have come over to see your fish within a short time. I shall be away for some time, and I am hoping that you saved the gills and viscera of the specimen, since they are most important. If all that was buried, you may still be able to save the gills at least.

I cannot hazard even a guess at the fish at present, but at the very earliest opportunity I am coming to see it.

From your drawing and description the fish resembles forms which have been extinct for many a long year, but I am very anxious to see it before committing myself. It would be very remarkable should it prove to be some close connection with the prehistoric. Meanwhile guard it very carefully, and don't risk sending it away. I feel it must be of great scientific value.

With kindest regards and best wishes for the new year,
Yours sincerely,

J.L.B. Smith

After a restless night, Smith went to the telephone exchange office as soon as it opened and put in a call to East London. He had to wait three hours for the call to go through, and when he finally got Courtenay-Latimer on the line, she confirmed his worst fears: the fish's internal parts, which would have proved invaluable in identifying the specimen, had spoiled and been thrown away. He asked her to find out where the town took its garbage; he would travel to East London and pick through it himself if necessary. Alas, the next day, the 5th, Courtenay-Latimer told him by phone that the town dumped its rubbish at sea. "So that was that," he later lamented. "They were gone beyond recall."

Over the next few days, Smith felt tortured by doubts and fears. For years he'd harbored a belief that someday he would make some astounding zoological discovery, and now he feared that that hunch might lead him astray. "What was the use of that infernal premonition of mine if it was just going to lead me to make a scientific fool of myself?" he wrote later in his book Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth. "Fifty million years! It was preposterous that Coelacanths had been alive all that time, unknown to modern man."

This fear was only one of several reasons Smith gave for why he didn't immediately travel to East London and confirm (or deny) the find himself. Another was that he wanted to gird himself for the explosive effect the discovery would have in the scientific world, if it proved to be valid. On January 9th, having heard no more from Courtenay-Latimer since he'd spoken to her on the 5th, Smith wrote to her again.

KNYSNA.
9th January 1939

Dear Miss Latimer,

Your fish is occasioning me much worry and sleepless nights. It is most aggravating being so far away. I cannot help but mourn that the soft parts of the fish were not preserved even had they been almost putrid. I am sorry to say that I think their loss represents one of the greatest tragedies of zoology, since I am more than ever convinced on reflection that your fish is a more primitive form than has yet been discovered. It is almost certainly a Crossopterygian allied with forms that flourished in the early Mesozoic or earlier, but which have been extinct for many millions of years. Comparatively little is known of the internal structure of such fishes, naturally nothing of the soft parts, since fossil remains are all that help us to know what they were like. Your fish has the general external features of a Coelacanthid, fishes common in early times in northern Europe and America. Whether or not it is a new genus or family I can determine only on examination, but I feel sure that it will make a great sensation in the Zoological world. I have been anxiously awaiting a letter from you, because I hope you understand that the thing must on no account be stuffed until it has been examined. It is very important that the structure of the skull shall be determined and the relations of the bones of the jaws. You do not happen to have noticed whether the air bladder was partly ossified or not? I asked you to see if you can possibly send the skin, etc., to me by passenger train so that I may examine them. Even if you have to have a special box made, it will be cheaper to send that way than for me to come to East London at present. If the skin is properly packed it will come to no harm, and I have a large preserving tank here that has held larger specimens than that. You should really have some such thing at the Museum. It can be made very cheaply by a plumber out of stout galvanized iron.

If you judge it quite impossible to arrange to send the skin I shall have to come over. But I should like to avoid the trip for many reasons. (Examinations!)

I should like you to understand that any opinions about the fish I have expressed here are naturally provisional only, and can be confirmed only when I have seen the thing. But I think you will probably agree with me about the zoological affinities of the specimen. Well now I am anxiously awaiting your letter. I think it would be as well if you could telegraph me whether you can manage to rail the thing, only if you do don't forget to insure for, say, £100—I shall naturally be responsible for all expenses.

To honor you for having got this wonderful thing I have provisionally christened it (to myself at present) Latimeria chalumnae, and it may even be a new family.

Kindest regards,
Yours sincerely,

J.L.B. Smith

The day after he wrote this letter, Smith received another letter from Courtenay-Latimer. It was dated January 4th, thus the day before he had last spoken to her.

EAST LONDON,
South Africa.
4th January 1939

Dear Dr. Smith,

I went straight off to see how the Fish Specimen was shaping, after you phoned. It's terrible to think I only received your wire three days after it was sent [actually one day after], on account of the holidays—but when the specimen came in and I found it to be something unique, I strove to do all I could to preserve it. As I found the work too much for me, I had it taken to Mr. Center and got him to do all the heavy work.

There was no skeleton. The backbone was a column of soft white gristle-like material, running from skull to tail—this was an inch across and filled with oil—which spouted out as cut through—the flesh was plastic, and could be worked like clay—the stomach was empty. The specimen weighed 127 lb. and was in good condition, only it was very hot and work had to proceed at once.

The gills had small rows of fine spines—but were unfortunately thrown away with the body.

Mr. Center has almost mounted the specimen now, and is not doing it badly at all—the oil is still pouring out from the skin, which seems to have oil cells beneath each scale.

The scales are armor-like, fitting into deep pockets. (By that I mean hard and heavy.)

The skull is in the skin and I have got Mr. Center to mount it with the mouth open. I have the tongue or hard mouth plate here.

I have done every possible thing to preserve and not lose any points and feel worried to think in the end I allowed the body and gills to be discarded. They were kept for three days, and when I did not hear from you I gave the order for disposal.

Kind regards,
Sincerely yours,

M. Courtenay-Latimer

Courtenay-Latimer received Smith's letter of the 9th on the 15th, and phoned Smith the following day to answer his questions. Another week passed before he wrote to her again.

KNYSNA.
24th January 1939

Dear Miss Latimer,

I have been waiting to hear from you again about that specimen. I should very much like to see a photograph as soon as you can send one. I doubt whether I can get over till near the end of the month; now that the fish is stuffed it does not matter very much.

I am still convinced that the fish is a Coelacanthid, but hope you will not give any information to the press till I have had an opportunity of examining the specimen in detail. Will you kindly make a special point of finding out from the skipper of the trawler if the fish showed any signs of life when it was caught. I have an idea that it might perhaps have lain somewhere in the ocean bed in some preserving ooze or mud these millions of years. Chemically it is possible. It would be very interesting to know if it was definitely alive or not. If it was there is always the chance of another, and you can offer the trawler people £20 for another perfect specimen for me. If by any millionth chance one should be obtained, please have a large tank made, buy as many gallons of formalin as are necessary, and inject strong formalin all over into the body, and of course telegraph me immediately. It is most aggravating to be so far away, and I am very anxious to come as soon as possible. If you can detach one carefully, kindly send me one of the scales, as they are important in diagnosis.

Kindest regards,
Yours sincerely,

J.L.B. Smith

There was no question as to whether the fish had been alive when it was brought up—it had apparently snapped its jaws visciously when the captain had touched its body, and it had lived for several hours after it was caught. As for any photographs, another letter from Courtenay-Latimer, which passed Smith's letter of the 24th in the mail, resolved that issue.

EAST LONDON.
25th January 1939

Dear Dr. Smith,

Bad luck seems to have dogged this fish—I went down to ask Mr. Kirsten whom I got to take photographs of the fish in flesh today and he tells me the entire film was spoilt.

I wish you could come over to East London. I seem to have no one to get interested and feel very despondent about the photographs.

Yours sincerely,

M. Latimer

On the 7th of February, Smith received a letter from Courtenay-Latimer dated February 1st.

EAST LONDON.
1st February 1939

Dear Dr. Smith,

Thank you for your last letter. I have tried to get in touch with the Trawler but at present it is at sea. However, I have a promise that a message shall be delivered and I shall get all information again.

When I went down to fetch the specimen I was told it had been trawled 40 fathoms off Chalumna and it had been alive. I am enclosing three scales for you. You will notice each one fits into a socket twice its depth. They have not faded much.

Are you returning to Grahamstown—I shall most probably be able to take the specimen over to you then.

Yours sincerely,

M. Courtenay-Latimer

The scales proved the deciding evidence for Smith. As he wrote later, "They hammered flat most of my doubts. Coelacanth, yes a Coelacanth for certain. Phew! What lay ahead?" He dashed off a final letter to East London.

Written from KNYSNA.
7th February, 1939

Dear Miss Latimer,

Many thanks for your letter and for the parcel of three scales. They leave little doubt about the nature of the fish, but even so my mind still refuses to grasp this tremendous impossibility. The discovery is going to be a real zoological sensation, and we shall have to see the trawler captain and crew in order to get their testimony, also the taxidermist. Your original letter to me will probably figure in my first report to the Royal Society. However, all this is confidential at the moment.

Thanks for your offer to bring the fish to Grahamstown, but the matter is so important that I must come over. My wife and I have decided to leave here a week earlier than we had intended, so as to be able to spend some days in East London. We hope to arrive about Wednesday the 15th next, and I shall probably telephone you immediately we arrive. It will save me time if you have or can have taken a full-plate size print of the photograph of the fish from which drawings can be made as basis. I only hope the taxidermist has not varnished the thing, as I must have details of the external structure of bones, etc.

No more now. It is curious that in spite of all this evidence, my intellect says that such things can't happen.

Kindest regards,
Yours sincerely,

J.L.B. Smith

Unable to contain himself any longer, Smith left Knysna with his wife the very next day, hoping to drive straight through to East London. But after they reached Grahamstown, heavy rains kept them there for a week. When they finally arrived in East London on the 16th, Smith naturally went right to the museum. It had been nearly two months since the fish had come ashore, but that only made Smith's initial sighting of it all the more miraculous. "Although I had come prepared, that first sight [of the fish] hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled," he wrote in Old Fourlegs. "I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth." The pair then set out to let the rest of the world know of their monumental find.

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Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

The discovery's two major players: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer...

J.L.B. Smith

...and J.L.B. Smith









Letter to JLB

When she dashed it off on December 23rd, 1938, Courtenay-Latimer had no idea that her initial letter to Smith would make scientific history.

Enlarge this image








Sketch

Courtenay-Latimer's crude sketch, which she included with her first letter to Smith, was the first drawing of a living coelacanth ever made.

Enlarge this image








JLB book

"Fifty million years!" Smith later wrote in his book Old Fourlegs. "It was preposterous that Coelacanths had been alive all that time, unknown to modern man."









Poster

Stuffed and mounted, the first coelacanth later appeared on a leaflet that Smith circulated all along the east coast of Africa. In English, French, and Portuguese, the leaflet offered a reward of £100 for a second coelacanth specimen. (It eventually turned up in the Comoros Islands in 1952.)









Courtenay-Latimer and Latimeria chalumnae

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and Latimeria chalumnae, the fish that bears her name, not long after the discovery.









Smith doing dissection

The letters reveal that long before he even examined the East London coelacanth, Smith knew exactly what he had on his hands.









Courtenay-Latimer

Courtenay-Latimer would spend 40 years at the East London Museum, but it was what she did over the course of several days in December 1938 that would earn her lasting recognition. As of this writing, she is still living in East London, at the age of 95.









TV title

The coelacanth made him famous, but Smith became a noted ichthyologist in his own right, publishing over 500 papers on fish and naming some 370 new species before his death in 1968.









Further Reading

Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth
by J.L.B. Smith. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1956

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth
by Samantha Weinberg. New York: HarperCollins, 2000




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.


Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA online.


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