South Africa sees its future in a fish


SODWANA BAY, South Africa - We may not see much of ourselves in the odd-looking fish known as the coelacanth. But biologists say otherwise: The shy, 5-foot-long deep-water dweller is family.

Swimming the oceans for more than 400 million years, the coelacanth (SEE-la-kanth) is thought to be one of the closest relatives of the ancient aquatic vertebrates that first "walked" up on land millions of years ago.

Nicknamed "Old Four Legs," the coelacanth has four limb-like fins, evidence that its species was a key player in the evolutionary leap from sea to land that gave rise over millions of years to amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals - like us.

Much about the coelacanth, however, is a mystery. Once thought extinct, they live deep underwater and have hardly changed in millions of years. Seeing one, scientists say, is like getting a peek far back into prehistory - somewhat like stumbling across a living dinosaur.

Here in South Africa, scientists this month launched one of the most ambitious and comprehensive investigations into the species.

Just off the coast of this remote bay on the Indian Ocean, a colony of coelacanth is living in underwater canyons and caves. Worldwide, the total number of coelacanth could be fewer than 1,000. They have been spotted in the Comoros Islands, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Indonesia, but South Africa's population is the easiest to study because it is close to shore and in comparatively shallow waters.

The South African government is spending $1 million to jump start research that might answer how the coelacanth has survived unchanged for so long while other species have become extinct. And why no young coelacanths have ever been seen. And how best to protect the species so that it survives for another 400 million years.

Lavish celebration

What makes the research unusual is the fanfare surrounding the project. Many scientists toil in seclusion and rarely receive public praise of their work, but the government kicked off the research project with a lavish celebration.

The guest list included ambassadors, government ministers and political leaders. The government chartered a vintage 1947 aircraft to fly them to this remote stretch of white sandy beach, where Zulu dancers and a choir performed in a seaside tent. For lunch, more than 500 guests dined on calamari, shrimp and white wine.

All this for a fish?

"It's not just a fish. It's more than a fish to us," said Dr. Tony Ribbink, leader of the coelacanth research project.

The coelacanth, Ribbink explained, is expected to become a symbol not only of South Africa's involvement in scientific exploration and science education, but a mascot of sorts for the conservation movement. Government leaders hope that one day the coelacanth might create public awareness of the environment as the panda has in China.

In South Africa, where much of the population is locked in poverty, a $1 million research project on a fish would not appear to be among the country's top priorities. But the government says it is an investment that will reap many returns.

"Statistics show that Africa has some outstanding scientists and yet the continent has fewer scientists than any other continent," said Ben Ngubane, minister of arts, culture, science and technology. His agency is sponsoring the coelacanth project with help from Germany, Mozambique and Madagascar.

"If science of Africa is to become globally competitive, and if it is going to excite the imagination and stimulate young minds, then it needs a strong element of creativity and innovation and perhaps a little danger, too."

All the attention surrounding the coelacanth is relatively new. Fossil records led scientists to believe the fish had been extinct for some 70 million years. But on Dec. 23, 1938, scientists learned they were wrong.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a 32-year-old curator of a tiny museum in the coastal town of East London on the Indian Ocean, was inspecting a trawler's catch for possible specimens for the museum, when she noticed one strange blue fin poking out of the pile of fish.

On closer inspection, she realized she had never before seen a fish like it. It was, she wrote, "the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent silver markings."

After consulting textbooks and local experts, she determined that it was a coelacanth. Latimer's discovery prompted some scientists to call it "the zoological find of the century."

In 1952, researchers discovered a second coelacanth in waters surrounding the Comoros Islands. A number of research expeditions followed in other parts of the Indian Ocean, which produced more specimens. Despite exhaustive searches, South African scientists did not find more in local waters.

That changed in 2000, when three deep-water divers went in search of the fish near Sodwana Bay. Over a two-week period, the divers spotted three coelacanth.

"It was quite a nice feeling," said Peter Timm, one of the divers who made the discovery. "It's an honor being down there because you are seeing something that not many people have seen."

But such privileges come with risk. Three divers have been killed in diving accidents while searching for the coelacanth in South African waters.

Such dangers will prohibit most tourists from ever seeing a living coelacanth as they do lions, elephants and giraffes in South Africa's game parks and reserves.

Still, it has not discouraged Sodwana Bay locals from dreaming of a day when tourists will descend on their sleepy village to witness the research into this peculiar fish.

Beer and horror movies

That is not too far-fetched. Over the years, the coelacanth has developed a cult-like following of scientists, divers and fans who can't get enough of the ancient creature. There is, for example, an "Old Four Legs" beer. The coelacanth is said to have been the model for the monster in the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And in the 1980s it was the inspiration behind an American composer's piece for horn, violin and piano called "The Voice of the Coelacanth," first performed in New York's Lincoln Center.

Here in Sodwana Bay, the coelacanth might not inspire great art but they make a fine picture for the T-shirts that Ann Pape, a local businesswoman, sells from the back of her car.

"I've always had a fascination with them," said Pape, who peddles the shirts, wire sculptures, pendants and other coelacanth-inspired curios up and down South Africa's northeast coast.

"It's like our own Loch Ness monster. Not everyone is going to see it, but we know it's there."

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