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Ancient Creature of the Deep

PBS Airdate: January 21, 2003
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: In the waters off the east coast of South Africa, 300 feet below the surface, divers search for a creature that existed before the time of the dinosaurs, a living fossil.

VOICE: It's three hundred and fifty, four hundred million years old.

NARRATOR: Some call it the, "Ghost Fish, King of the Sea," others, "Monster of the Deep."

VOICE: On a moonless but fairly bright night you can actually see those eyes glowing.

NARRATOR: For over half a century the search has persisted.

VOICE: There have been divers who've died trying to find these fish.

NARRATOR: Those who come in contact with it are changed forever.

VOICE: You get this kind of science fiction chill on the back of your neck and going down your spine.

NARRATOR: ...a creature that offers tantalizing clues to the evolution of all life on Earth, including us.

VOICE: I did see one alive, and I never got over that.

NARRATOR: A creature thought to have been extinct for over 50 million years.

Voice in Frankenstein trailer: It's alive! It's alive! It's alive!"

NARRATOR: Ancient Creature of the Deep up next on NOVA.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear. Sprint is proud to support NOVA.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: In Sodwana Bay, South Africa, a team of divers prepares to attempt a descent of several hundred feet into the Indian Ocean to search for a mysterious, ancient creature.

Deep dives here are always dangerous. Rescue divers are in place. An emergency medical team hovers nearby. Each diver carries several tanks, different compressed gases to breathe at different depths. Any mix-up here could be fatal.

DIVER 1: This is my oxygen. It's closed—cannot breathe this at depths deeper than 10 meters. This is air to travel down. And on my back I have a helium mixture to breathe at depth.

NARRATOR: Everything is planned down to the minute.

DIVER 2: Our total dive is going to take us exactly two hours, so 15 minutes down and on the bottom, and the rest of the time coming up.

One, two, three, go.

NARRATOR: For a quarter of an hour, they drift down through a world ever quieter, ever colder, ever darker. Then, at a depth of 300 feet, something catches their eye.

DIVER 3: We saw the Continental drop-off. We headed straight for it. We saw a cave. We went straight into that cave, just looked underneath it: there he was.

NARRATOR: A great primitive fish, a Coelacanth—its ancestors date back 400 million years, to a time when all earth's creatures lived under water, and the great transition to living on land was about to begin. Was the Coelacanth, with its fleshy, leg-like fins, the missing link in evolution from fish to land animals?

Coelacanths were long considered extinct, known to science only through ancient fossils that displayed these curious limb-like fins. But one fateful day in 1938, everything changed.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER (Former Curator, East London Museum): Hello. Welcome. Welcome to 6 Lake Street.

NARRATOR: Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was then the 31-year old curator of a small natural history museum in East London, South Africa.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: Come in.

NARRATOR: She remembers well how her life was turned upside down by the mysterious Coelacanth.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: Nobody ever knew the difficulties and the, the trauma that I went through. I went through absolute trauma saving that fish, because nobody wanted to know. As I say, even my family, in the end, began to think I was cuckoo—suppose I was being cuckoo.

NARRATOR: On December 22, 1938, a fishing trawler steamed into the East London harbor. On the deck was a pile of sea life dredged up after a freak storm. But these fish were not all meant for market.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: It was a pile of sponges and starfish and rat-tail fish and...you name it they were there.

NARRATOR: When putting together new exhibits at the museum, Marjorie often obtained samples from local fishermen.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: And then, from underneath this crowd, there was this one fin sticking out, this blue fin. And I thought, "What on earth could this be?" Then I moved all the fish. There was this beautiful, beautiful fish...iridescent colors all over the fish. It was solid. It was just on five-foot long, rough scales and very big eyes, very big blue eyes, these peculiar limb-like fins, something that I've never seen in a fish in my life.

NARRATOR: Marjorie had been an avid collector since childhood. She knew instinctively that this was an important find.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: I thought, "Now, whatever happens, this fish has got to be saved."

NARRATOR: Although she was able cart the fish back to the museum, this was 1938, and there was no easy way to refrigerate and preserve the specimen. She inquired at the local mortuary.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: And so I went in, and this very tall, very gaunt looking gentleman said what could he do for me. So I said, "You know I've got this beautiful fish." I said, "I have to try and save it, and I wondered if you could put it into the mortuary." So he drew himself up, right nearly up to the roof, and he said, "I've never heard of such an iniquitous suggestion. Most definitely not. Most definitely not!"

NARRATOR: In desperation, she sent off a note and a sketch to a professor at Rhodes University, 100 miles away in Grahamstown. Professor J.L.B. Smith was trained as a chemist, but his passion was ichthyology, the study of fish. His work in this field would soon change the face of science.

JEAN POTE (Former Secretary and Archivist for J.L.B. Smith): Let me take you to L4.

NARRATOR: Professor Smith's onetime secretary and archivist is Jean Pote.

JEAN POTE: This is it. This is a very interesting file. It's correspondence with Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer from 1936 onwards. And in this file is, I think, the original drawing. That is the original drawing by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. And as soon as he saw that, he knew it was something really rare.

NARRATOR: For J.L.B. Smith, it was more than rare; it was an impossibility. If that drawing were correct, this fish should have died out with the dinosaurs.

Smith's wife, Margaret, described his reaction.

MARGARET SMITH (Wife of J.L.B. Smith): It was the third of January, 1939, and I suddenly felt almost shock waves coming from my husband, who was standing up reading a letter. And through the back of the letter I could see a picture of a fish. And he pointed to the drawing of the tail. And he said, "You see that tail. That tail belongs to fishes that have been extinct for millions and millions of years."

NARRATOR: Smith was confused and puzzled. He almost hoped he was wrong about the identification of this creature. But if he was right, the implications were staggering. Despite his initial excitement, he was unable to examine the fish in person for nearly two months, leaving Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer to deal with this strange creature alone.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: He probably thought I was making a mistake. And I'd sketched it, and I had written all these letters to him about it, but he probably thought, you know, I was young and inexperienced with ichthyology. It's a funny thing to just suddenly decide to bring a fossil fish out into the open.

NARRATOR: Marjorie was left with no choice. In order to save the fish for scientific study, she had it skinned and mounted. But without any preservatives, the internal organs had to be discarded. This was later described by Smith as one of the most terrible tragedies in science.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: So there were a lot of confusions in the beginning, and I got blamed for losing the innards of the fish. I had to bear that all my life. But still, the main thing was that we saved the thing; we saved the skin and the type specimen.

On the 16th of February, at 10 o'clock, Professor Smith walked into my office. I'd been waiting for him since the 22nd of December.

NARRATOR: "That first sight hit me like a white-hot blast," Smith later wrote. "It made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled. I stood as if stricken to stone."

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: And he walked 'round the table. And he said, "Lass, this fish will be on the lips of every scientist in the world. It's a Coelacanth."

NARRATOR: Since J.L.B. Smith identified the strange fish, he was able to christen it. He named the genus "Latimeria," after the woman who had saved the fish for science, and the species, "chalumnae" after the river near where it was caught.

The press went wild with the news, calling it the most important scientific discovery of the century. A creature from a group thought to be extinct for millions of years was alive. It was a living fossil, a window into the past.

The term "living fossil" had been coined by Darwin. In his writings on evolution, he argued that somewhere, most likely in the ocean depths, some creatures would have eluded the pressures to evolve, and changed little from prehistoric times.

Now here was a living Coelacanth, strikingly similar to fossils more than 50 million years old.

JOHN MAISEY (Paleontologist, American Museum of Natural History): Well, we're down in the basement of the museum now, and the fossil fish collection is through here.

NARRATOR: John Maisey is a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

JOHN MAISEY: Collections are arranged in a systematic sequence or in an evolutionary sequence. And the Coelacanth fossils we keep in these cabinets.

For example, here are some small Coelacanths from, well, from right around here. These probably lived in fresh water. These are about a shade over 200 million years old. And these didn't get much bigger than this. These Coelacanths lived at a time when North America was still attached to Africa so New York would have been very close to Morocco at this time.

NARRATOR: Coelacanths first appeared, along with the other major groups of fishes we know today, about 400 million years ago. Then the Earth was, more or less, one large landmass. Over time, this super-continent separated into what is now essentially the modern globe, leaving Coelacanth fossils on every continent except Antarctica.

These fossils had been known to science since the 1830s. They'd been found in widely varying sizes, but with several distinguishing features: an oddly hinged joint in the head, fins that had a limb-like structure, and hollow fin rays supporting the distinctive tail. The oddly spelled name comes from the Greek, meaning hollow spine.

J.L.B. Smith wrote that finding a living Coelacanth was, "like walking down the street and running into a dinosaur."

Scientists were skeptical that the fish in East London was a true living fossil. Even Smith worried that perhaps the Coelacanth had "lain somewhere in the ocean bed in some preserving ooze or mud these millions of years." But Marjorie soon assured him that the fish had snapped at its captors before dying.

The press played up the idea of a missing link, an idea also derived from Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin proposed that life came out of the sea, evolving from fishes to amphibians to mammals to us over millions of years.

Was the Coelacanth a missing link—that interim step from water to land? Was this fish the key to understanding our own evolution?

JOHN MCCOSKER (Evolutionary Biologist, California Academy of Sciences): All life came from the sea. And when we realize that life is really just an evolution of forms, these are the closest relatives to our ancestors. And then we, intellectually, would like to know, "Who was the closest? Who was the missing link?"

NARRATOR: John McCosker is an evolutionary biologist at the California Academy of Sciences.

JOHN MCCOSKER: We're dying to know, "What was that step from the fishes to the amphibians?" And when they discovered Coelacanth fossils they said, "Aha, it must be this, this thing that walked out of the water." And when they discovered the living fossil they said, "That's it. Our ancestor, it's alive."

NARRATOR: But Marjorie's fish was all they had. And it was only skin and bones. The innards had been lost.

J.L.B. SMITH: And we were, by such unfortunate circumstances, prevented from being able to find out what most of its body and organs were like.

NARRATOR: Were the Coelacanth's internal organs like those of other fishes or more like those of amphibians, reptiles and mammals?

J.L.B. SMITH: And, therefore, it became more than nominally desirable, really imperative to find more.

NARRATOR: This would become J.L.B. Smith's life's work, to find another Coelacanth, and this time an intact specimen.

MIKE BRUTON (Ecologist, University of Cape Town): J.L.B. Smith was a hard man. He was a very, very focused man. And that tended to turn people off who didn't share his point of view.

NARRATOR: Mike Bruton works today as an ecologist, here in South Africa. He studied under J.L.B. Smith.

MIKE BRUTON: Well, J.L.B. was a remarkable fisherman and actually predicted that the first Coelacanth didn't naturally live off East London, that it was a more tropical deep-water animal.

NARRATOR: Smith felt certain that if Coelacanths were native to the highly fished waters off East London, they would have been caught many times before. He reasoned that Marjorie's fish inhabited the deep, tropical reefs to the North and had been driven toward East London by currents running down through the Mozambique Channel.

MIKE BRUTON: So he distributed leaflets all over the East African coast.

NARRATOR: Smith's leaflets, in English, French and Portuguese, offered a hundred-pound reward, an enormous sum for a local fisherman. But he still faced tremendous odds against finding a second specimen. After all, the Coelacanth had proved amazingly adept at eluding discovery.

JOHN MCCOSKER: J.L.B. was a fisherman, a mad fisherman.

NARRATOR: As with the first specimen, caught by trawler fishermen, Smith was counting on those who made a living from the sea. And like Smith, biologist John McCosker knows where to ask when looking for a particular fish.

JOHN MCCOSKER: These men are the best ichthyologists, for sure. They know the differences between—the subtle differences—between different species, different populations. If you want to find rare fish, you don't go to an ichthyologist or a museum, you go to a fish market. And these guys know fish. I mean, it's their whole life, is fish.

NARRATOR: The fishermen of the Comoros Islands would prove to be a godsend for J.L.B. Smith. The Comoros are a small group of volcanic islands, then controlled by the French, just north of Madagascar. Here, men have fished in the same way for over a thousand years, and were said, occasionally, to pull out of the water a fish they called "Gombessa."

Comoran fishermen had no idea this fish might shed light on one of the greatest scientific mysteries of all time, but the substantial reward caught everyone's attention.

Then, in December, 1952, from the Comoros, Smith got the telegram he'd hoped and prayed for, for 14 years. It came from an English sea trader he'd met in Madagascar, Eric Hunt. "Have five-foot specimen Coelacanth. Injected formulin here. Killed twentieth. Advise."

Smith was beside himself. Did Hunt have enough preservative? It would take weeks to reach the Comoros by boat. By then the fish might putrefy. He'd not spent all these years searching to let this specimen slip away.

Smith turned to his connections in the South African government to try to borrow a plane, finally calling the Prime Minister himself, D.F. Malan.

MIKE BRUTON: Malan was at his beach cottage, in 1952, when he got that famous phone call from J.L.B. Smith. And he realized that J.L.B. Smith had something important to tell him, that South Africa's prestige was at stake.

NARRATOR: As a South African, Mike Bruton remembers the story of the second Coelacanth well.

MIKE BRUTON: And as a result, Malan eventually gave permission for that military Dakota to fly to the Comoros. It's since been described as sort of a military airplane going to a foreign country taking a mad scientist to fetch a dead fish.

DUNCAN RALSTON (South African Air Force): Well this is Dakota 6832, the one we flew to fetch the Coelacanth in 1952.

NARRATOR: Major General Duncan Ralston was a lieutenant at the time and the senior navigator on the flight that took J.L.B. Smith to the Comoros.

DUNCAN RALSTON: Professor Smith actually sat about here. And he was so tense and so excited. We had a long flight over the sea. There was almost no navigational aids, but we landed, and there was the fish.

NARRATOR: The fish smelled strongly of the formaldehyde Hunt had used to try to preserve it. And it was a bit the worse for wear, having been carted across the island by the fisherman who caught it. Nevertheless, after 14 years of searching, Smith finally had his Coelacanth.

J.L.B. SMITH: I could not bring myself to touch it. And I knelt down to look, and I'm not ashamed to say that after all that long strain, I wept.

DUNCAN RALSTON: Professor Smith insisted that we get this fish back to the airplane and take off as quickly as possible. I'm not sure to this day whether we did, in fact, have proper diplomatic clearance to land at the island or to take the fish away. I know subsequently the French government were enormously cross about the whole affair because they felt it belonged to them.

So we flew back. We had to fly the fish down to Cape Town because Dr. Malan wanted to see it. Dr. Malan said, when he saw the fish, "My, it's very ugly. And is this where we came from?"

NARRATOR: Malan was a creationist and the father of South African apartheid. Aiding Smith in his evolutionary research was dangerous politically, but South Africa's prestige was at stake, and Malan welcomed the publicity.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: Meet Professor Smith of Grahamstown, South Africa, with a model of that famous fish, the Coelacanth.

J.L.B. SMITH: Coelacanths are close relatives of the fish that scientists consider was the ancestor of all land animals. The Coelacanths have lived for probably 350 million years and in that time they have changed but little.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: Yes the professor says the fish is a kind of ancestor of man, poor fish.

NARRATOR: In his lab, Smith began the first ever dissection of a Coelacanth, peering into a world never before accessible to science. What he discovered was that the Coelacanth is different in many ways from all other modern fish. Not only did it have strange, limb-like fins, it had no real backbone. Instead, Smith found a more primitive structure called a "notochord."

ROBIN STOBBS (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity): This is part of the notochord of the Coelacanth that was dissected here. And it's simply a hollow tube. It's a gristly tube, which extends from just behind the brain right through into the tail, and it's filled with a light oil under a very slight pressure.

NARRATOR: This kind of oil-filled skeletal structure is unique. Most adult vertebrates have well-developed backbones, especially those that live on land, including human beings.

ROBIN STOBBS: The entire fish is filled with oil. There is not a single air sinus in the fish. So, like a diver's depth gauge, it's incompressible, which, in theory anyway, would allow it to swim at depths of 1000 meters or more.

NARRATOR: But it was the limb-like fins that really caught the attention of Smith and the world. They had their own internal skeleton, more like our limbs than the fins of a normal fish.

J.L.B. SMITH: As you see, the fins are more like paddles than ordinary fins. And indeed, our arms were developed from a pectoral fin like that of this fish. I have no doubt that this fish crawls about on the bottom quite easily.

NARRATOR: Once again, the press trumpeted the Coelacanth as the missing link, a creature that bridged the gap between fish and primitive land animals.

Scientists, museums, even zoos now wanted their own Coelacanth. The London Zoo offered a reward of 1,000 pounds for a live specimen.

Smith capitalized on the excitement surrounding his find. He wrote a book, Old Four Legs, and created a legend.

MIKE BRUTON: Through Old Four Legs, which is one of the great scientific books of all time, he captured the public imagination. Partly because it's a fantastic fish, but I think we must give also credit to J.L.B. for a really good marketing exercise. He weaved the human story, the... all the intrigues of the Comoros—and he's working with a South African Prime Minister who didn't believe in evolution—and made the Coelacanth story come alive for people, gave them an entrée into this fantastic scientific world from which most people are excluded.

NARRATOR: Through his research and his book, Smith's name became forever tied to the Coelacanth, like Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer's. But what of the Comoran fisherman who actually caught the fish? He is seen here getting his reward. His name is Ahmed Houssein.

This is the first time he's been interviewed. Houssein says he never met Smith but recognizes his fish.

AHMED HOUSSEIN (Fisherman): We went fishing all night, caught the fish and came back in the morning. We found out it was the gombessa, Coelacanth, and it was taken to the capital.

NARRATOR: He says he got the reward, but other fishermen took credit for the catch.

Until this moment not even Houssein's own neighbors knew what he had done. But his catch back in 1952 put the Comoros on the scientific map. From then on, this tiny archipelago would be acknowledged as the prime location for finding Latimeria chalumnae.

As the islands were then under French colonial rule, an international embargo was declared. Comoran fisherman using the same time-honored methods of hook and line would catch many more Coelacanths. They would all be sent to France.

For the next 23 years, the Coelacanth was almost exclusively studied in the Department of Comparative Anatomy, here at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Daniel Robineau was part of the team of scientists which conducted the first comprehensive dissections of Latimeria using properly preserved specimens.

DANIEL ROBINEAU (Museum of Natural History, Paris): This is one of the many specimens we received from the Comoros. A cut was made across the head giving us access to the inside of the skull. One can see very clearly the most interior part of the notochord.

NARRATOR: The French team found a series of contradictory features. In some ways, the Coelacanth looked very primitive, with organs and glands similar to those of sharks and rays, and a tiny heart, which is little more than an expansion in the main blood vessel. In other ways, the Coelacanth resembled tetrapods, those four-limbed creatures that include everything from the very first land-dwellers to human beings.

DANIEL ROBINEAU: There are several characteristics that show similarities to tetrapods. There's the presence of a vestigial lung and, of course, here are the lobed fins. And here on this X-ray, we can see the vein that brings the abdominal blood back up to the heart. This vessel is a genuine vena cava, like that found in tetrapods. The vascular system of almost all other fishes is completely different.

NARRATOR: So was the Coelacanth the closest living relative of tetrapods—the missing link? Some scientists said yes, others no, as they continued to explore this mysterious creature's anatomy.

ROBIN STOBBS: Its brain, which, unfortunately, you can't see, is incredibly small. The, the brain case is, is probably about that size, but the brain itself is, is no bigger than the end segment of one's thumb.

NARRATOR: In the snout of the fish, a strange jelly-filled cavity was discovered. It initially puzzled researchers but is now thought to be an elaborate electro-receptive organ.

ROBIN STOBBS: And we believe that this is used to detect minute electrical impulses put out by prey organisms.

Its eye, in life, looks much bigger than that, and it's like a crystal ball. It's, it's a clear, clear...clear as anything. And the Comorans say that, that coelacanths have fire in, in its eyes. And that's because it collects any light that's available and reflects it back, rather like a cat's eyes at night.

NARRATOR: These specialized features may help to explain why Coelacanths have survived for 400 million years. Their outward appearance has changed little, but internally, they must have adapted to changing environments as the Earth itself was transformed over time.

Whether the remarkable features of Latimeria developed four million years ago, or 40, or 400, we may never know. But it has found its niche and continues to avoid extinction, thanks, in part, to two other crucial adaptations: its advanced method of reproduction and its extremely low metabolism.

PHIL HEEMSTRA (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity): So they wouldn't need much food. They're living, in fact, in a low food environment. There isn't a whole lot of food around for them. And this may have something to do with their long survival. They have adapted to this low food environment.

NARRATOR: Phil Heemstra has been studying Coelacanths for over two decades, and has been fascinated by the way they reproduce.

PHIL HEEMSTRA: It looks like an orange, but it's actually a model of a Coelacanth egg. This is a life-size model. They have the largest eggs known amongst fishes.

NARRATOR: The huge Coelacanth eggs, filled with nutrients to feed the growing embryo, were discovered by the French in 1955. They were at first thought to be released and fertilized on the ocean floor, until a freshly dissected specimen yielded a surprise.

PHIL HEEMSTRA: In 1975, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they found a pregnant female with five babies inside her. So then we knew that they had internal fertilization, and they give birth to living young, like sharks do.

Here's a model of one of those five babies. And each of them still had a large yolk sac, although the fins are fairly well developed, as you can see. The scales are developed.

NARRATOR: Although fossils had shown tiny coelacanths inside an adult, researchers couldn't tell if the adult was about to give birth, or had eaten the little ones. Now they knew: coelacanths give birth to live young, and have done so for 200 million years. Well before mammals came along, the Coelacanth was using a mammal-like reproductive strategy, insuring that most of its young would survive.

After decades of research, much had been learned. But well into the 1980s, no one had ever observed a Coelacanth alive for more than a few hours.

The Coelacanth lives in deep, cold water where the oxygen content is high. When one is caught and brought to the warmer, less oxygen-rich surface water, it cannot survive very long, especially with the stress of capture. Even today aquariums have been unsuccessful in capturing and keeping a Coelacanth alive.

So no one knew how they mate, how they hunt, how they elude predators in their natural habitat. There was only one way to find out; go to them in a submersible.

HANS FRICKE (Max Planck Institute): It's nothing more than a motorized decompression chamber.

NARRATOR: The man responsible for this chamber is Hans Fricke, a zoologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He has been obsessed with the Coelacanth since childhood.

HANS FRICKE: And we thought that the Coelacanths occur deeper than 200 meters, and this was the reason that we built Jago.

NARRATOR: Jago was custom made by its pilot, Jurgen Schauer.

JURGEN SCHAUER (Pilot, Jago Submersible): You have five lights. Each light has a power of 250 watts, so you can impose sunlight on the seabed. And we have five little thrusters. These side ones are rotatable, and we have three in the back for propulsion with which we can make a speed of about walking speed. It's about one mile an hour.

NARRATOR: Jago was brought to the deep blue waters off the Comoros, where, along with biologist Karin Hissman, Fricke and Schauer could pursue the Coelacanth.

One day in 1987, after hunting the fish for weeks to no avail, Fricke was called back to Germany, leaving Jurgen Schauer to continue the ever more frustrating search.

JURGEN SCHAUER: We were already quite desperate already, everybody on the ship.

NARRATOR: Then, at 9 p.m. on the 17th of January, at a depth 600 feet, there it was—a Coelacanth.

JURGEN SCHAUER: We did not know how the fish would behave. Usually the fish swim away when they see the strong light of Jago. But this fish didn't care about the lights.

KARIN HISSMAN (Biologist): It's so large, and it's moving in such a different way than other fish do, which makes it really a spectacular experience to discover a fish like this.

NARRATOR: Schauer immediately radioed Fricke with the exciting news.

HANS FRICKE: Jurgen called me with the ship radio, and I said to him, "Give everybody a kiss. I give you a bottle of champagne," and so on and so on. I was very, very enthusiastic about it. And on the end of the conversation the operator said, "What the hell is this, what you were talking about?" I said, "the Coelacanth." And he, he asked me, "What is a Coelacanth?" I said, "It's an old, ugly, oily fish."

NARRATOR: As expected, Coelacanths were found to live in a fairly uninhabited ecosystem and seem to have no real predators. They aggregate during the day in volcanic caves, and at night have been known to migrate to depths of over 2,000 feet.

But, unexpectedly, films of the Coelacanth showed how the multiple fins function and laid to rest the idea of a crawling fish, first put forward by J.L.B. Smith.

HANS FRICKE: Smith said, "Ya, they are creeping on the bottom, like seals." And of course they don't. They are not walking. They are continuously hovering above the ground.

NARRATOR: The Coelacanth moves unlike any other fish of this size. Its oil-filled body allows it to maintain neutral buoyancy and float in any position. Six fins are almost constantly in motion like oars in the water: upper and lower fins toward the rear of the creature, plus two pairs of limb-like fins, front and center.

And there was something surprising about the way these limb-like fins moved. Although the Coelacanth was not using them to crawl on the bottom, to the expert eye their motion hinted at walking—walking like we do, according to Susan Jewett, the fish collection manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and an international expert in Coelacanth biology.

SUSAN JEWETT (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History): It's got paired pectoral fins and paired pelvic fins. These are particularly interesting because this fish has what's called a tetrapod form of swimming. We, being tetrapods, have all learned that when we walk, we move the right arm forward in synchrony with the left leg. Well the fish sort of swims like that with that right pectoral and the left pelvic going in synchrony with one another—very interesting characteristics—which again is one of many characteristics that place it in that evolutionary line towards higher vertebrates.

NARRATOR: If the coelacanth swims like a land animal walks, does that, too, suggest it's our closest living relative among the fishes? To this day the evidence is inconclusive. Until recently, most researchers put Coelacanths nearest to tetrapods on an evolutionary tree. But now, a group known as lungfish is thought to be an even closer ancestor, based on new DNA evidence.

We may never know for certain which group of fishes contains our closest living relative. Still, the coelacanth continues to surprise science at every turn.

Six thousand miles from the Comoros, on the other side of the Indian Ocean in Indonesia, the sudden discovery of a Coelacanth would disrupt the lives of two young scientists, an uncanny echo of the events in South Africa some 60 years before. Mark Erdmann, a marine biologist studying coral shrimp, and Arnaz Mehta, a naturalist, had just started a life together as husband and wife, here in Indonesia, when the Coelacanth made its unexpected appearance.

It all began in the local fish market when Mark and Arnaz, stepping out of a taxi, spotted a strange looking fish on a fish cart.

ARNAZ MEHTA (Naturalist): I went over to the cart, and I stared at this fish thinking it was a grouper at first, but then the head was all wrong. Everything was wrong about it. And then I called Mark over, and our other two friends, they came and looked at it. And Mark, sort of in disbelief, said it was a Coelacanth.

MARK ERDMANN (Marine Biologist): It just seemed really kind of incredulous that we could step out of a taxi in a city of over half a million people and see something that was really a big deal go wheeling by on a fish cart.

NARRATOR: They took a photograph but did not purchase the fish, thinking Indonesian Coelacanths were already well known to science. But they soon learned the uniqueness of their sighting: no scientist had ever found a Coelacanth except near South Africa and the Comoros Islands.

Mark and Arnaz quickly embarked on a quest to find a second specimen. Like J.L.B. Smith before them, they enlisted the aid of local fishermen. A new hunt was on for the elusive Coelacanth.

As in the Comoros, this fish was known locally. Fishermen called it "Rajah Laut," "King of the Sea."

SUSAN JEWETT: Mark wanted to make sure that if one was captured again by these fishermen that he would be able to get it, so he offered a very modest award, uh, reward rather. I think it was perhaps double the market price. And it, it's not a good eating fish, so the market price couldn't have been very high. But it was enough to entice the fishermen to bring it to him when they caught it. And that's exactly what happened.

NARRATOR: Then, ten months after the initial sighting, Mark and Arnaz had a visit.

MARK ERDMANN: And my boatman showed up, and he burst out, "Rajah Laut. Come quick. There's a Coelacanth on the beach."

We rushed down the stairs. Arnaz grabbed the video camera, and we went down to see if this was indeed the fish.

NARRATOR: Like all of its predecessors, the creature soon found life at the surface impossible. But before the great fish died, the couple took it out to deeper water to get photographs in a more natural setting.

Arnaz even had a few moments to swim alongside.

ARNAZ MEHTA: The fish had been caught several hours earlier and it was really down to its final hour. During that time, you know, her fins were still moving, still flouncing. And then her dorsal fin would raise, and then once in a while she would take a big gulp of water. And she was extremely calm in her inevitable demise.

I couldn't get over how beautiful her scales were. They were, they were, you know, these scales that were speckled with these gold flecks. And it was like a slow dance.

MARK ERDMANN: It was certainly sad to watch such a majestic beast die so slowly.

NARRATOR: When DNA samples of the Indonesian Coelacanth were sequenced, they suggested that this was a new species and dissuaded scientists from the idea that the Indonesian fish was a stray. In fact, from the DNA analysis, it seems that the two populations were separated many million of years ago.

Once again, the mysterious fossil fish surprised scientists around the world.

ROBIN STOBBS: The Indonesian discovery upset the whole apple cart. Science was all nice and happy, they'd got these little enclaves in the Comoros all sorted out, and anything that was outside that was a stray. Now, all of a sudden, ten thousand kilometers away, right across the other side of the Indian Ocean, we have another colony of Coelacanths. And it's not just one or two, it's not strays, it's a colony. They are known to the Indonesian fishermen, which suggests to me that, that, they're actually more, far more widespread than, than we think.

MARK ERDMANN: That fact, that we could find this animal in a place that is relatively well known to ichthyologists... It would not surprise me in the least if over the next 50 or 100 years that it is revealed that the Coelacanth actually exists pretty much in one continuous population, from the western Indian Ocean all the way up to Indonesia.

NARRATOR: J.L.B. Smith didn't live to hear the story of the Indonesian Coelacanth. In 1968, after years of ill health and in constant pain, Smith took his own life. He was 70 years old.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer celebrated her 93rd birthday in February, 2000. She was the first in a long chain of people whose lives were touched by this ancient fish.

MARJORIE COURTENAY-LATIMER: I think that all my life I was called to do what I did in my life. And uh, it all came as a wonderful kind of circle of events, finding this wonderful fish.

SUSAN JEWETT: There's something about the ancient nature of this fish, and the story that goes with it, that intrigues people so much and pulls them in. It's just something magical about it.

MIKE BRUTON: I first saw the Coelacanth probably in about 1956, the original mounted specimen in the East London museum. To me, it was this fantastic creature from the past which gave us a window into the past and made us kind of realize life began in the sea. From the sea the vertebrate, the backboned animals, crawled out onto land, and that's where the evolution of terrestrial vertebrates started.

NARRATOR: The final riddle: the Coelacanth may never have stepped onto land, but if this living fossil was able to avoid extinction and detection for so many millions of years, what other strange and wonderful creatures may also be down there?

MARK ERDMANN: It really does say something about how little we know about the oceans. Very definitely that goes a long way in explaining the mystique of the Coelacanth and its enrapturing effect on the public. Because that's kind of a weird thing if you really think about it—it's just a big, ugly, old fish. But there is something more to it, and it's that it's that quality of the unknown, of the deep.

NARRATOR: For over half a century this creature has attracted the scrutiny of scientists worldwide, yet so many questions remained unanswered. Do Coelacanths live in all the world's oceans? How large are their populations? How long do they live?

Over the next half-century, scientists will continue to explore these secrets, and perhaps more lives will be touched by this mysterious survivor.

The Coelacanth is the most famous living fossil in the sea, but there are others, and they give us a window into prehistoric worlds. See them for yourself on NOVA's Website at PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Ancient Creature of the Deep

Produced And Directed by
Celia Lowenstein

Produced for NOVA by
David Espar

Narrated by
Gene Galusha

Associate Producer
Julie Crawford

Edited by
Eric Davies
David Espar

Camera
Simon ffrench

Rostrum Camera
Ken Morse

Sound Recordists
Paul Kennedy
Tony Bensusan

Music
Brian Gascoigne

Animation
Marcelo Cermak
Bruce Walker

Production Manager
Roz Howe

Assistant Editor
Laura Minnear

Production Team
Mahmoud Aboud
Samantha Lauren Feder
Patricia Francisco
Ashley Hoppin
Georgia Manukas
Daniel McGuire
Kamal Ali Yahoudha

Executive Producer for Channel 4
Roy Ackerman

Online Editor
Ed Ham

Colorist
Mark Kueper

Audio Mix
Heart Punch Studio

Archival Material
'Origin' by Daniel Lee
American Museum of Natural History
East London Museum
ITN Archive, Ltd.
Laboratory of Comparative Anatomy, National Museum of Natural History, Paris
Arnaz Mehta & Mark Erdmann
SABC TV Archives
JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History
Redaktion Fossilien im Goldschneck-Verlag
The Field Museum, #GEO86357c
South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity
Chicago Tribune
BBC Worldwide
Hans Fricke, Max Planck Institute, Germany
ABC/British Movietonews

Special Thanks
The Divers of May 2001 Sodwana Bay Expedition
Keith Thomson
William Bemis, Univ. of MA-Amherst

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Queene Coyne

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Manager
Holly Archibald

Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Diverse Production for NOVA/WGBH and Channel 4.

© 2003 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved

Ancient Creature of the Deep

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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