The Coelacanth in Literature Following Rediscovery

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the first coelacanth specimen (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Thought to have been extinct for 65 million years, the coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was scientifically rediscovered in December 1938 when a specimen was brought by a fisherman to South African museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. Ms. Latimer worked to preserve and identify the animal, which would be named after her when Professor James Leonard Brierley Smith described the coelacanth in 1939.

In the first few decades following rediscovery, the coelacanth appeared in both scientific and popular literature. I have included several excerpts from that era below.

Two figures from the paper A Living Fossil by James Leonard Brierley Smith published in The Cape Naturalist, vol. 1, No. 6, July 1939
Five pages from Ichthyological Papers 1931-1943, Volume II by James Leonard Brierley Smith, 1969
Photo from Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1940
From a guide leaflet on fish produced by the American Museum of Natural History, 1942 – 1948
Page from the Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin, March – April 1945
From the textbook Everyday Biology by Francis Day Curtis, Otis William Caldwell and Nina Henry Sherman, 1946
Page from the book The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa by James Leonard Brierly Smith, 1949
A nice dedication at the beginning of the book The Search Beneath the Sea; the story of the coelacanth by James Leonard Brierley Smith, 1956
More images from the book The Search Beneath the Sea; the story of the coelacanth by James Leonard Brierley Smith, 1956

After identification of the first coelacanth, there was naturally great interest in obtaining a second specimen. A reward poster was given to fishermen who worked on the East African coast:

From the article The Influence of the Coelacanth on African Ichthyology by Margaret M. Smith, appearing in Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences, December 22, 1979

It would take until December 1952 for the second coelacanth to be caught:

JLB Smith and M. Courtenay-Latimer with the second coelacanth specimen. From the article My Story of the First Coelacanth by M. Courtenay-Latimer, appearing in Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences, December 22, 1979
Illustration by Sam Hinton, Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine biologist, from a column titled “The Ocean World” in The San Diego Union newspaper, September 11, 1960
From Report of the Director to the Board of Trustees for the Year 1961, Chicago Natural History Museum
Fig. 32-41. Model of Latimeria, the only surviving representative of the ancient lobe-finned fishes. These cross-opterygians, which were very abundant 75 million years ago, were believed to be extinct, until quite recently. Since 1938, however, several specimens of this fish have been caught in deep water off the coast of South Africa. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, New York.)

Above image and caption from the book Principles of Modern Biology by Douglas Marsland, 1964

Image appearing on the last page of Occasional Papers of the California Academy of Sciences, December 22, 1979
A little lobe finned fish humor from a cartoon by Robert Day in The New Yorker Magazine, 1966.

If anyone is interested in reading more on coelacanths, leave a comment, because I’m very happy to write more on one of my favorite animals. I’ll consider one request as being representative of the majority!

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