The Fish That Rose from the Dead

By Hal Plummer

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the rediscovered coelacanth

The coelacanth is a fish that was once thought of to have become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, the same mass extinction event that killed off non-avian dinosaurs. However, in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a museum employee at East London, South Africa, was looking over a local fisherman’s catches of the day, discovered a large, unidentifiable fish, with dark scales and light spots.

The term, “Living Fossils” was coined by Charles Darwin, to describe species that have not changed much from their ancestors that have been fossilized. The coelacanth is an example of this, but plants such as the ginkgo, and even many species of shark, can fit this definition. Studying living fossils is important in determining relationships between species and when new species could have emerged from two different species mating, and give researchers insight into how certain genes have existed for millions of years.

For quite some time, researchers weren’t sure of how long these fish could live. Some estimated around 20 years. But in 2021, with more advanced techniques, researchers determined that they could live up to 100 years, through a method similar to counting the rings in a tree stump. The coelacanth also is one of the slowest maturing fish species, they don’t reach maturity until 55 years old. As well, they have a longer gestation period than an elephant, their pregnancies lasting up to 5 years.