Phase 1 Comprehension 1

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The living fossil


    1. It is an ugly old fish but perhaps it is the most glamorous ugly old fish in the world. Its ancestors date back four  hundred million years, but until 1938 scientists knew coelacanth (pronounced “see-la-kanth”) only as a fossilised relic from the time of dinosaurs.


    2. Douglas Long of the California Academy of Sciences says of the coelacanth, “So it was almost a shock when in 1938 one showed up. You get what’s called a living fossil, basically, a fish known only from the fossil record. Here it is, eighty million years later, you’ve got a live one.” It was not extinct after all.


    3. A fisherman pulled the first known modern coelacanth from the waters off the Comoros Islands near Madagascar. South African biologist Marjorie Courtney Latimer came across it in a fish market, and by Christmas Day, 1938, it was on the front pages of newspapers around the world.


    4. A relative few coelacanth have been caught in the area over the years. Now the coelacanth has turned up again, nearly seven thousand miles from the Comoros Islands. This time it was found near North Sulawesi, in Indonesia. U.C. Berkeley biologist Mark Erdmann happened to be there on his honeymoon.


    5. Roy Caldwell of the University of California at Berkeley talks of Erdmann’s discovery: “He went to a fish market to look for Manta shrimps, the animal he actually works on. His wife pointed out a large, ugly fish going by on a hand cart, which he immediately recognised as a coelacanth.”


    6. Professor Roy Caldwell says the coelacanth just recently found in Indonesia apparently lives in the same type of habitat as those found near the Comoros Islands- about six hundred feet deep in underwater caves.


    7. Caldwell says one reason for coelacanth’s popularity is its fleshy fins that remind people of limbs. He says,


    8. “So it was thought that they were direct ancestors of land vertebrates…”


    9. “You mean our ancestors?”


    10. “Yes, our ancestors.”


    11. “Were they?”


    12. “Turns out they weren’t, but people thought that…ha ha”


    13. Even before the most recent discovery, coelacanth fans have been growing in number. The fish even has its own website, at


    14. Additional notes:


    15. One version of the 1938 discovery story says that Mrs. Latimer noticed the coelacanth on the deck of a fishing boat when she went to the dock to give the boat’s crew her Christmas holiday greetings.


    16. So, the coelacanth was not extinct after all! This type of modern coelacanth is named Latimeria, after Ms. Latimer. The fish grows up to five feet in length and may weigh up to 150 pounds. Its colour is a dark blue with silver or white flecks along its sides. The most distinctive feature of the fish is its unusual tail. It is thought to be a very rare animal.


    17. The coelacanth is thought to live in deep underwater caves along the sides of submerged volcanoes. In 1986, German biologists used a submersible to film a healthy coelacanth swimming in its natural habitat at a depth of 590 feet.


    18. When Mr. Erdmann saw the coelacanth in Indonesia, he took a photo of the fish before it was sold. Erdmann later found out that this was the first reported sighting of the coelacanth in a place so far away from the catch of 1938. Another coelacanth was found off Indonesia in July 1998. It was alive when it was brought to Mark Erdmann, but it later died. This type of coelacanth is brown with golden flecks on its sides.


    19. Fossils of the coelacanth are on display in some science museums. There are no living coelacanth on display in an aquarium.