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Spring 2014
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FIELD NOTES
 
A Fish Story
On the trail of one of the remote progenitors of life on earth.
Fish stories typically involve fishermen catching fish for pleasure, profit, or a nice meal—as well as a heavy dose of embellishment. This fish story is an exception. In fact, the fish we were after is itself an exception: catching it in the ocean for any purpose is a major violation of several international treaties. And based on reports from those who in the distant past experienced its oily texture and unpleasant taste, to eat it would be inadvisable even if it were legal. Nevertheless, finding this fish in Toronto in 2010 required the same tenacity, patience, time, and, ultimately, good luck required of any successful fisherman.

What is the fish in question? You may not have heard of it: it’s a coelacanth (pronounced “seal-a-canth”), a 1.5-meter, 60-kilogram (nearly 5 feet and 132 pounds) sea monster with four limbs, two dorsal fins (most other fish have only one), and what has been playfully described as a puppy dog tail. In the depths off the southern and eastern coasts of Africa—its main habitat— it resembles a very large blue fish foraging slowly.

The coelacanth’s potential to provide a link between fish and reptiles originally conveyed upon it pseudo-celebrity status among scientists and the public as an evolutionary Rosetta Stone. Rare observation of a living specimen has revealed that its paired lobe fins expand away from its body like legs and move in an alternating pattern similar to a trotting horse. Moreover, at 400 million years and counting, it is easily one of the world’s oldest species. (By comparison, humans have been in existence for around 50,000 years, and based on how we are behaving and treating our planet, our survival as a species for 400 million years might be considered slightly optimistic.)

The extremely fortuitous discovery by a junior museum curator of the first coelacanth off the coast of South Africa in 1938, about 90 million years after the previously estimated date of extinction, is considered one of the greatest findings in modern biology. The focused search for more of these beasts—starting about 70 years ago, initially by a committed and eccentric fish scientist, and culminating in modern researchers filming one in the wild less than 20 years ago—gave birth to a wonderful contemporary book by Samantha Weinberg called A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. After reading this fascinating tale, we felt a connection to the fish. We decided to try to locate a specimen close to Toronto to see it for ourselves; we would collaborate for the summer on this mission, junior student and senior mentor.

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