Coelacanth Unrecorded Populations

The Coelacanth is the only surviving member of a class of lobefin Fishes that dates back 400 million years, to the Early Devonian. No fossil Coelacanths have been found that are more recent than the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago.

Etymology: Former genus name, from the Greek koilos ("hollow") + akantha ("spine").

Scientific names: Latimeria chalumnae, given by J. L. B. Smith in 1939 for the Indian Ocean species; L. menadoensis, given in 1999 for the Celebes Sea species.

Variant names: Ikan fomar (in Java), Patuki (Rapa Nui/Austronesian).

Physical description: Length, 5 feet. Weight, up to 150 pounds. Slate-blue with white flecks. Thick, armorlike scales, lined with serrated rows

110 civets and mongooses of hardened, toothpick-pointed denticles. Rays of the first dorsal fin are arranged like a fan, but the second dorsal, pectoral, and pelvic fins are lobed. Three-lobed tail. A pressure-sensitive lateral line senses the proximity of other fishes and surrounding structures.

Behavior: Congregates in submarine caves in the daytime. Sculls in an upside-down position with paired pectoral and pelvic fins moving in unison.

Distribution: Now known from the Comoro Islands and nearby African waters and off Sulawesi in Indonesia. Evidence for their presence in the South Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of India, and Java is tenuous yet intriguing. Significant sightings:

Off Easter Island—The Easter Islanders have legends of a Coelacanth-like fish called the Patuki, which has leglike fins.

In the Gulf of Mexico—A Tampa, Florida, souvenir seller bought a bucketful of Coelacanth scales, now lost, from a local fisherman in 1949. Silver ornaments in the shape of a Coelacanth, apparently dating from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, were found in Bilbao and Toledo, Spain, in 1964 and 1965; initially thought to have originated in the Spanish colonies of North America, they were shown, in 2001, to be recent manufactures using the Co-moran coelacanth as a model.

Off the coast oflndia—An eighteenth-century Indian miniature painting shows a Muslim holy man standing beside a Coelacanth-like fish with armorlike scales.

Java—George Serres caught a 25-pound specimen in 1995 off southwestern Java, though documentation was later lost. Local people know about the fish, which they call Ikan fomar. Possible explanations:

(1) The Spanish silver ornaments may have been based on a fossil Coelacanth, though its three-dimensional shape conforms well with the living fish.

(2) The Indian miniature painting could portray the Climbing perch (Anabas testudineus), found in India and Southeast Asia, which is famous for its ability to survive several days out of water. Sources: Francis Maziere, Mysteries of Easter

Island (London: Collins, 1969); B. Brentjes, "Eine Vorentdeckung des Questenflossers in Indien?" Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 25 (1972): 312-313; Hans Fricke, "Quastie im Baskenland?" Tauchen, no. 10 (October 1989): 64-67; Michel Raynal and Gary S. Mangiacopra, "Out-of-Place Coelacanths," Fortean Studies 2 (1995): 153-165; Karl Shuker, "Long May the Coelacanth Reign as King of the Sea in Indonesia," Strange Magazine, no. 20 (December 1998): 36-37; Hans Fricke and Raphaël Plante, "Silver Coelacanths from Spain Are Not Proofs of a Pre-scientific Discovery," Environmental Biology ofFishes 61 (August 2001): 461-463.

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