The Cryptid Zoo: Coelacanth

This photograph shows a stuffed specimen of the first coelacanth to ever be viewed by western scientists. The copyright for this photograph is in the public domain, according to Wikipedia.
The coelacanth is often called a living fossil fish. It was supposed to have become extinct 65 million years ago, but a specimen of what was apparently a coelacanth was picked up at a fish market near Cape Town, South Africa in 1938. After being identified as a coelacanth and stuffed as a taxidermic specimen to preserve it, doubts were expressed about whether it was genuine. Scientists brought out all the arguments that they typically use to explain away cryptids, including that it was a misidentified normal animal. In this case, it was accused of being a common grouper, even though the remains did not resemble that fish. A second coelacanth was not captured until 1952. Some years after that, catching coelacanths became more of a science and the capture of hundreds of coelacanths managed to demolish the remainder of the scoffers. Today, the coelacanth is fully accepted as a real animal, and we even have videos of live coelacanths swimming in their native habitats.

Known coelacanths are about 5 or 6 feet long when mature. Their heads look somewhat primitive, and they have six fins along the length of their bodies. One pair of fins projects from just under the gills, and the other fins are ranged along the body. Colors include blue with silver striping and brown with golden spots.

The coelacanth is not just any living fossil fish. It is perhaps the most important variety of living fossil fish that could be discovered. It is a member of the lobe-finned fishes, one species of which first ventured onto land and evolved into ambhibians, later giving rise to reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals and every other type of land animal (with the exception of bugs and a few land-dwelling crustaceans). The coelacanth is the closest living relative among the fishes that you and me have. Studying it could prove very enlightening to those who want to learn more about evolution.

The story of the coelacanth is not finished. A second population of coelacanths (perhaps even a separate species) was discovered living near North Sulawesi, Indonesia in 1997. This time, these coelacanths were accepted as real by the scientific community about a year after the initial discovery took place. Before they were accepted, though, the prejudice that so often has tainted cryptozoology caused both the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution to insist on total secrecy before they would fund the search.

This acceptance of the Indonesian coelacanth came so fast because of the lessons that had been learned when the African coelacanth was discovered. In Africa, native folklore had described the coelacanth, known as the gombessa, but this folklore was ignored by most researchers. Once the folklore was taken seriously, it helped lead researchers to the elusive coelacanths.

The second time around, researchers had learned their lesson. This time, they asked the Indonesian natives for their folklore and were rewarded with stories of the rajalaut which led them to the fish fairly rapidly. Once again, folklore has proven its worth as a tool of cryptozoology, even though it also obscures the truth and relying on it in any way can draw large amounts of ridicule. Surprisingly, the Indonesian coelacanths lived near a coral reef that was a popular tourist destination, showing us that it is sometimes possible for cryptids to live right under our noses without us realizing it.

The African coelacanth and the Indonesian coelacanth might not be the only types of coelacanths in the world. Unconfirmed reports have come from many other places in the ocean, and even freshwater lakes. Seeing how elusive coelacanths are, these reports are plausible. The fossil history of coelacanths shows that they lived in both freshwater and saltwater habitats of many sorts at various times in their long history. Because of these reports, the coelacanth is still a cryptid. Some varieties have been proven real, while others may yet await discovery. Some cryptozoologists expect that before we are done, we might discover a dozen or more varieties of coelacanth around the world.

You can find out more about the Coelacanth from the following sources:

Clark, Jerome and Coleman, Loren. Cryptozoology A-Z. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Pages 66-68, 116-119, 137

Coleman, Jerry D. Strange Highways: A Guidebook to American Mysteries & the Unexplained. Alton, Illinois: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2003. Page 186

Hamelin, Jerome F.:

Keel, John A. The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Pages 7-8
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Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 107-109

Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Page 255

Smith, J.L.B. Old Fourlegs: The Story of the Coelacanth. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1956.

Thomson, Keith Stewart. Living Fossil: The Story of the Coelacanth

Walker, Sally M. Fossil Fish Found Alive: Discovering the Coelacanth

Weidensaul, Scott. The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Pages 65-66

Weinberg, Samantha. A Fish Caught in Time : The Search for the Coelacanth

Wikipedia, The. Coelacanth

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