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New sighting of 'living fossil' intrigues scientists

A coelacanth  
CNN's Don Knapp reports on the exploits of this ancient aquatic dweller
Windows Media 28K 56K
September 23, 1998
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EDT (2340 GMT)

From Correspondent Don Knapp

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- An ugly fish known as the "living fossil" has made another appearance in the ocean, surprising scientists.

A coelacanth has been found in Indonesia -- 7,000 miles (11,200 kilometers) from its only previously known location near Madagascar.

The ancestors of the coelacanth (pronounced SEE-la-kanth) date back 400 million years. Until 1938, scientists knew the coelacanth only as a fossilized relic from the dinosaur era.

"So in 1938, it was almost a shock when one showed up, that you get this, what's called a living fossil basically, this fish that's known only from the fossil record and here it is, some 80 million years later, you get a live one," said Douglas Long of the California Academy of Science.

coelacanth displayed
The second coelacanth known is exhibited in 1952  

A fisherman pulled the first-known modern coelacanth from the waters near the Comoros Islands near Madagascar. South African biologist Marjorie Courtenay Latimer came across it in a fish market.

History repeated itself in the latest discovery. University of California-Berkeley biologist Mark Erdmann was in Indonesia on his honeymoon when he visited a fish market in Manada, Sulawesi, to look for manta shrimp, the animal he studies.

"His wife pointed out a large, ugly fish going by on a hand cart, which he looked at and immediately recognized as a coelacanth," said Roy Caldwell, a biologist at UC-Berkeley.

The fleshy fins of the coelacanth earned it the nickname of 'fourlegs'  

Caldwell said the coelacanths recently found in Indonesia apparently live in the same type of environment as those found in the Comoros, caves about 600 feet (18 meters) deep along the steep sides of underwater volcanoes.

One reason for the coelacanth's ancient popularity was its fleshy fins that reminded people of human limbs, Caldwell said. Those fins led to speculation that the fish were direct ancestors of land vertebrates.

The fish did not turn out to be the ancestor of humans, but did manage to outlive the dinosaurs.

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