680: Samantha Weinberg: A Fish Caught in Time

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor – 400 million years old – a four-limbed dinofish! In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman’s trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth – a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link – the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century’s greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his whole life.

“Our important events – from learning to make stone tools, to walking on the moon – are but a small bleep to the silent witness at the bottom of what we presume to call ‘our’ oceans. It is comforting to imagine the coelacanth swimming quietly around, unaware of the crazy things that take place, surviving far greater holocausts than those we have known, and continuing to exist after this extraordinary duration of time.”

Samantha Weinberg “A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth”. First published in 1999. This paperback edition was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. I buy it myself for the library and also the adorable plush coelacanth for the Kids Sea Library 💙

Photos by Anna Iltnere / Sea Library

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