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The Coelacanth: Act Three

Keith Thomson

I spent the spring of 1969 fishing with a Royal Society expedition in the western Indian Ocean. We aimed to survey as many as possible of the islands and banks north of Madagascar and south of Zanzibar for that most famous of living fossil fishes—Latimeria chalumnae. The coelacanth had been found first off South Africa in 1938 and then off the Comoro Island group northwest of Madagascar in 1952. Given that distribution, there seemed a good chance it would exist elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean. After three months working in the most beautiful coral islands I will ever see, the expedition was a modest success. All sorts of rare and wondrous fishes were found, but in the essentials, we failed—no coelacanths.

All this helped to contribute to the view that Latimeria really is a classic living fossil, endemic to the tiny Comores Archipelago, and that the specimen from South Africa was just a stray. This was a story we could be comfortable with—a relic from the Mesozoic clinging to existence in one tiny godforsaken spot, soon to become totally extinct. But now, 30 years later, everything has become magnificently confused once again. And the story is something of a morality play about the changing course of scientific ideas. Like any good play, the story comes in three acts.

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