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Discovery of a Living Fossil

by Enochadmin

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and coelacanth, c.1938 © East London Museum.

It was the morning of twenty-two December 1938. A name got here by means of to the East London Museum in South Africa’s Jap Cape for its curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. She had requested the native trawlermen to alert her to something uncommon of their catches and Captain Hendrik Goosen, casting his nets at 40 fathoms close to the mouth of the Chalumna River, had one thing for her. He simply wasn’t certain what.

Courtenay-Latimer headed for the docks. On board, she waded by means of sharks, starfish, seaweed and sponges. Then she noticed it. Probably the most lovely fish she had ever seen, she thought, ‘like an enormous china decoration’: five-foot lengthy, pale mauve-blue, white flecked and iridescent, coated in arduous scales, with 4 limb-like fins and a tail healthier for a pet.

However Courtenay-Latimer didn’t know what it was. She rang the closest skilled, James Smith at Rhodes College. There was no reply. The subsequent day she despatched him an outline of her ‘most queer-looking specimen’ and a sketch. Smith was on vacation.

Courtenay-Latimer was caught. The museum was uninterested. ‘You’re making such a fuss about it, nevertheless it’s nothing however a rock cod’, its chairman mentioned. The city had two refrigeration amenities massive sufficient to retailer it, considered one of them the morgue. Neither would assist, so she turned to a neighborhood taxidermist. Collectively they swaddled the fish in formaldehyde-soaked newspaper and a bedsheet. In the summertime warmth its physique seeped oils alarmingly.

When Smith lastly acquired Courtenay-Latimer’s letter on 3 January, he instantly considered a coelacanth, extinct for 70 million years. Reaching East London on 16 February, the second he noticed it he was satisfied. ‘The primary sight hit me like a white-hot blast’, he recalled.

He introduced the invention in Nature, quoting Pliny the Elder: ‘Ex Africa semper aliquid novi’, there’s at all times one thing new out of Africa. He named it Latimeria chalumnae in honour of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the river that had delivered up its historical marvel.

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