Having finished watching the dolphins pirouette and sweep around their tank from the underwater viewing windows at the Vancouver Aquarium, our group began traveling up the ramp back to the main floor. As we did, everyone walked by a nondescript case off to the back containing an odd-looking rhinoceros-type fish, without anyone taking notice of it at all . . . well, that is, everyone but me. I noticed it because even though I only caught it out of the corner of my eye, my heart did a little jump, just like it does when you unexpectedly see someone you love. And this was one of my first loves: a coelacanth.
( Not sure what to do with the Latin? It sounds like this: see-la-kanth :-)
In the late 1960s, there were only a handful of places in the United States that someone who was nine or ten years old could have seen a coelacanth, but I happened to live in the harbor town of San Pedro, not terribly far from the Natural History Museum at Exposition Park in downtown Los Angeles -- that's where I came across my first coelacanth in person. Sure, the dinosaur exhibits were memorable as well, but not anywhere near as captivating as the coelacanth, with its lavishly fringed tail fin, its primitive looking eyes and teeth, its armor-like scaliness, and the fleshy lobe fins that seemed for all the world like they could be dwarf legs. As Samantha Weinberg remarks in A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth:
"In appearance, at least, the coelacanth is less a fish than a bizarre confection of mismatched parts -- modern, ancient, and unique. As one of the deckhands . . . said after hauling it up off the southern African coast in 1938, 'It looks like a giant sea lizard'" (p.196).
Coelies aren't cute and cuddly like waddling penguins or grinning dolphins or furry baby seals; it certainly wasn't looks that led to them becoming pop culture icons in the 1950s and 1960s. It was the fact that, in 1938, a creature that scientists assumed had died out 65 million years ago in the great Cretaceous extinction, like the dinosaurs -- known only through its fossilized remains, dating back 400 million years -- had suddenly emerged from the ancient sea and onto the front pages of 20th century newspapers. It would not be until 1952 that a second coelacanth was captured and preserved in a way that it could be properly studied, adding to the anticipation that the first arrival had caused. (No one has been able to keep a coelacanth alive outside of the ocean to study it; a few films of live coelacanths in the water have been made. Over the years, about 200 coelacanths have been caught and studied. A new initiative in South Africa has created a major program of coelacanth research, which may result in much more information about the life cycle of coelacanths.)
Dubbed "old four-legs" in the popular press, it was more than the fact that the coelacanth was a "living fossil" that caused such a stir. The possibility that coelacanths might well be the "missing" evolutionary link between the first sea creatures and the first tetrapods that had crawled out of the ocean and on to land, giving rise eventually to human beings, made them the source of widespread fascination. And perhaps the coelacanth's renown was given an extra boost in that the Leakeys were unearthing "early man" in Africa, and the idea of being able to at last fill in significant gaps in the great evolutionary story of life (the ones relating to us :-) seemed to be at hand.
When I became a scholar and began thinking about the nature of science in popular culture, my enduring interest in coelacanths has never been far from my mind. For one thing, the existence of coelacanths represents one of the scientific experiences that spurred my interest in studying nature -- and most of these experiences had nothing to do with the science I learned in the classroom up through high school, via textbooks or laboratory demonstrations. The science I most loved rarely showed up in class; the science I was exposed to in class rarely enthused me (don't ever get me started on the tedium of rolling steel balls down inclined planes or of titrations of potassium permanganate).
It was as if my ideas about nature existed on two tracks that rarely crossed: scavenged from museum visits and National Geographic's School Bulletin (and later the grown-up magazine itself) and television specials and visits to the ocean and books from the library and camping trips in the Mojave desert with the Girl Scouts or hiking the high Sierras with the YMCA . . . or instead properly trained into me (more or less) through bench-pressing facts from big fat textbooks and successfully executing one multiple choice test after another.
So what happens when the two paths rarely cross -- or two species of thought fail to cross-fertilize? Welcome to my world! I'm still working on it. In many respects, that early love of coelacanths put me on the path to wanting to understand science in the vernacular.
I think that one important idea that the coelacanth conveyed to me, in the midst of the self-congratulatory high that the space race brought to the US in the 1960s, was of how little we knew about our own planet, particularly the three-fourths of the globe covered by oceans and seas. My own sense of nature was overwhelmingly shaped by my proximity to the ocean as a growing organism, and I was beginning to suspect that a vernacular-derived metaphysics and epistemology that was aqueous-based differs from those that are terra-formed or aether-filled. This has got me thinking, so look for a blog entry sometime this spring on "Thinking Like an Ocean," which will be part of the analysis for the next book I'm writing.
Interestingly, South Africa's Minister of Science and Technology, Mosibudi Mangena, sees study of the coelacanth as a way to promote science in society (I was just born too early, and near the wrong ocean):
The South African Minister however deplored the low standards of science in his country and Africa at large, given the lack of resources. "Public scientific output remains low, and in critical areas, such as securing patents, and new fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, there is a limited institutional capacity to respond adequately," he complained.
The African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme however stood out as an important and well-functioning "high-profile flagship programme" for science in South Africa and the region, Mr Mangena pointed out. Through ACEP, science authorities had caused popular excitement by "ships, sea exploration, sophisticated instrumentation, and new discoveries that extend the frontiers of science to capture the imagination of the youth, and inspire them to take an interest in science."
Coelacanths continue to surprise us, popping up in 1997 10,000 kilometres away from the African coast in Indonesia, where UC Berkeley researcher Mark Erdmann spotted a coelacanth carcass being hauled off to market. The existence of the Indonesian coelacanths surprised the scientific world, although it turns out that Sulawesian fishermen were quite familiar with the fish they called raja laut, or "king of the sea" -- the Comoran fishermen also had a name for the oily, inedible fish they sometimes accidently caught: gombessa. Makes you think about what it means when we say that a species has been "unknown" -- unknown, that is, until it is discovered by outsiders.
An aside: "My" childhood coelie appears to have been the result of a UCLA researcher in 1964 initiating the first major international expedition to the Comoros Islands off of Madagascar, the coelacanth habitat that had been previously open only to French scientists (see Malcolm S. Gordon, "The international program of research on Latimeria in the 1960s," Environmental Biology of Fishes, 1993, 36:407-14). After their analysis was complete, their coelacanth was sent to LA County's Natural History Museum, and no doubt would have been something of a local celebrity when I visited it.
Ten years later, as a UCLA student, I walked through the doors of the campus Life Sciences building, and came face-to-face with another coelacanth, much to my surprise (it was probably a cast taken of that first one). It still had the power to give me a small electrifying jolt, unlike the dozens of other students who passed it by without a second look. Every now and then, I'd visit it, just to take a small step back in time amidst the stress of the present; it always pleased me to see it there. I wonder if it's still on display?
Further info: NOVA produced an episode on coelacanths, "Ancient Creature of the Deep," and there is a companion website. Want to make your own paper coelacanth? Courtesy of the Yamaha Motor Company, you can -- see the example to the right. I know what I'm going to be working on over Christmas vacation :-) Other odd moments in coelie pop culture include the Pokemon Relicanth and a slew of musical tracks which feature coelacanths!
Images: The top left image is from the front page of dinofish.com, a great place to start in your exploration of all coelacanthish news. The second one is from the wikipedia site on coelacanths, and is a coelie that is on display at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. The paper coelie can be found at the papercraft "rare animals of the world" Fun From Yamaha site at http://www.yamaha-motor.co.jp/global/entertainment/papercraft/animal-global/index.html.