Fisherman catches 'living fossil'


Aug 1, 2007

Scientists are examining the Indonesian catch

An extremely rare "living fossil" caught by a fisherman in Indonesia is being examined by scientists.

The 1.3m-long (4.3ft), 50kg (110lb) coelacanth is only the second ever to have been captured in Asia and has been described as a "significant find".

An autopsy and genetic tests are now being carried out to determine more about the specimen.

Coelacanths provide researchers with a window into the past; their fossil record dates back 350 million years.

These fish are odd in appearance, looking almost as if they have legs because of their large-lobed fins - they are sometimes dubbed "old four legs". The blue fish can also perform headstands, hovering with their head just over the sea floor, possibly to detect food.

Scientists previously thought the fish group had died out about 70 million years ago, but were shocked when in 1938 a species was caught in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa.

Since then, more than 300 of the modern coelacanth species (Latimeria chalumnae) have been found in the waters around the Comoros Islands, which are situated in the Western Indian Ocean, and the eastern coast of Africa.

However, scientists were surprised once again when a coelacanth was discovered thousands of kilometres away in Indonesia in 1998.

It looked similar to the coelacanths found near Africa, but genetic analysis revealed that the genomes differed by about 3.5%, and it was described as a new species called Latimeria menadoensis.

Peter Forey, a coelacanth expert at the Natural History Museum, London, said: "When the Indonesian coelacanth turned up in 1998, lots of people went out to look for more around this area, but nobody ever saw anything until now.

"The fact that another specimen has been found is significant; it confirms that this is a genuine location for another coelacanth's population."

A fearsome catch

Justinus Lahama, an Indonesian fisherman, caught the fish two months ago off the coast near Manado, on northern Sulawesi Island.

He told AFP news agency: "It was an enormous fish. It had phosphorescent green eyes and legs.

"If I had pulled it up during the night, I would have been afraid and I would have thrown it back in."

He took the catch back to the port where it remained alive for 17 hours in a netted pool outside of a restaurant. It was then frozen and is now being examined by scientists.

Genetic fingerprinting tests to be carried out by an international team of scientists will confirm if it is the same species as the coelacanth found in 1998.

The tests, said Dr Forey, could also help to reveal more about how and why the two species exist thousands of kilometres apart.

"The fact that the two populations are separated by this enormous gap of thousands of miles begs the question of how long ago and why they separated," he said.

"Estimates from the genetic fingerprinting carried out on the fish caught in 1998 suggest that they separated about four to five million years ago, however if you look at the geology of the oceans, it suggests that they should have separated about 30 million years ago.

"More sequences taken from this new fish will help us to calibrate these estimates."

Various efforts to conserve these ancient fish are underway. They are considered to be endangered and are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

On Wednesday, another group of scientists announced that they had discovered a 400-million-year-old fossil of a coelacanth fin.

The find was reported in the journal Evolution and Development.

Researchers from the University of Chicago said it had been excavated from sediments at Beartooth Butte in northern Wyoming and would reveal more about the evolution of the creatures.