Desperately seeking coelacanths

A FISH CAUGHT IN TIME: The Search for the Coelacanth By Samantha Weinberg HarperCollins 220 pp., $24

In 1938, a South African trawler crew pulled up a most unusual fish. It was five-feet long, slate blue, and its hard scales were covered in flecks of whitish spots and an iridescent blue-green sheen. It had four limb-like fins and a strange fan-like tail. It tried to bite the captain, who found it so beautiful he nearly set it free.

Instead he took it to port and gave it to the young museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who became convinced it was a member of a family of fish that had been extinct for tens of millions of years. She showed it to the museum director who advised her to throw it out: "You're making such a fuss about it," he said. "But it's nothing but a rock cod. All your geese are swans."

But it wasn't a rock cod. When Latimer managed to alert an expert, the bizarre fish was positively identified as a coelacanth, a fish that had vanished from the fossil record 65 million years before. It had long been thought to be the missing evolutionary link between fish and the first animals to crawl up on land.

It was the zoological find of the century, one that made Latimer and Prof. J.L.B. Smith world famous, shocked the scientific community, and set off a desperate search for more specimens of the living fossil.

"A Fish Caught in Time" is an elegantly written story of the lives of a compelling school of characters who risked everything to pursue the elusive coelacanth. There's Professor Smith, the scientist who positively identified the fish, a workaholic extraordinaire who scolded colleagues for being 60 seconds late for a meeting.

We meet a pair of East-bloc defectors who built their own submersibles to track the fish to their deep Comoros cave-lairs. In 1987, they filmed coelacanths in their natural environment for the first time and revealed their strange propensity to do headstands on the ocean bottom. It's thought such gymnastics may help it "hear" other animal's electromagnetic fields with its unique jell-filled rostral organ.

They saw coelacanths resting - but never walking - on their lobed fins, which contain skeletal structures similar to those of lizards' legs.

Most recent is the story of Mark Erdmann, a young scientist whose life is turned upside down after his wife spots a coelacanth on an Indonesian fish cart during their 1997 honeymoon. He's since found another, confirming the existence of a second population thousands of miles from the Comoros Islands.

But Erdmann is among those who fear that scientists themselves may drive the fish to extinction. Museums and aquariums around the world want a coelacanth of their very own and dozens have been killed in unsuccessful attempts to keep them in captivity. With the entire population estimated at under 1,000 individuals - and the fact that coelacanths bear live young and are slow to reproduce - humans may finally accomplish what nature has not.

Although the search is exciting, Weinberg treats the scientific aspects of the coelacanth quest with kid gloves, and the scientifically curious reader is going to be understimulated.

It's a pity that the coelacanth's implications for our understanding of evolution are so lightly touched upon. It saps strength from the narrative because it denies the reader a proper appreciation of what motivated so many people to drop everything - and take harrowing risks - to unlock the mysteries of this remarkable fish.

*Colin Woodard is author of 'Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas' (Basic Books).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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