Scientists have reported success with a coelacanth tagging program launched in 2013 off the coast of South Africa, and they have retrieved a satellite tag holding nine months worth of data about the rare fish.
Because of the creature’s endangered status, only one coelacanth was tagged under the project in May, 2013. The tag was programmed to release and float to the surface after nine months. Since coelacanths spend much of their time in caves on the floor of the sea, scientists were not sure the tag would ever make it to the surface. In February of 2014, the tag’s location information was transmitted to project members and a search party found the small egg sized device the following day.
The coelacanth has been called a ‘dinosaur fish,’ a ‘living fossil’ and a ‘Lazarus fish.’ It was thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago.
In 1938, a coelacanth was discovered among a catch of fish off the coast of South Africa. Brought in by the fishing ship, Nerine, the bright blue fish was taken to a museum by curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. Debate over the authenticity of the specimen raged until another was caught near Madagascar fourteen years later. Following the discovery and verification of the coelacanth’s existence, countless specimens were caught, so many in fact, that it led to their endangerment.
The fish is not considered a food source since its oils give the flesh a foul taste. It is however, the frequent victim of commercial fishermen using deep sea trawling methods. So far, none have survived long in captivity making it a difficult animal to study closely.
The name ‘coelacanth’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘hollow spine,’ a nod to the hollow spine fins that the fish bears. The fish can grow to between five and six feet in length and weigh over a hundred pounds. The coelacanth has eight fins and is covered in armor like scales. Each of the fish bears its own, unique color markings and their colors vary from bright blue and white to brown. Scientists believe that the fish are able to recognize each other through electric communication.
In 1997, a second population of coelacanths was discovered off the coast of Indonesia. Marine biologist Mark Erdmann spotted the fish at a local market and snapped a picture. At the time, Erdmann didn’t realize the fish had not been documented in the region. Indonesian fishermen were well familiar with the animal however. They referred to it as the “Rajalut” or “King of the Sea.”
For many years there have been rumors of a population of coelacanths in the Western Hemisphere. Various bits of evidence have been presented including coelacanth like scales. Some areas even have local legends about the fish, but no solid evidence has been proven.
The current populations of coelacanths are being closely studied. Both known species of coelacanth are considered endangered and scientists are taking precautions to help save the fish.
The coelacanth is often cited by cryptozoologists as an example of supposedly extinct species that have still survived in remote pockets. The approach in dealing with these rare fish should be watched closely as a learning model for future cryptozoological discoveries.
More about the Coelacanth tagging project can be found here: