Saturday, June 30, 2012

Another Living Fossil: The Coelacanth

400 millions years ago (MYA), during the Devonian Period, life had already gained a foothold on land.  However, in the seas, unless you were at the top of the food chain, there were a lot of predators to contend with.  If you were a fish in the middle of the food chain during the Devonian, you not only had to deal with ancestors of the modern day shark, but a now-extinct group of armor-plated fish, called the Placoderms.  Some of these Placoderms, like Dunkleosteus, grew to simply enormous proportions, around 30 feet in length!  One type of fish that lived during the Devonian and was most likely preyed upon by the sharks and the Placoderms was a fish known as the Coelacanth.

The Coelacanth (SEE-lah-canth) was a relatively unassuming fish, its closest living relative being the lobe-finned fish.  Fossils of the Coelacanth have been discovered ranging from 400 MYA to around 65 MYA, coinciding with the death of the dinosaurs.  In 1938, however, when one was hauled in on a fishing net off the coast of South Africa, the temporal range of this animal was extended by 65 million years!  Today, by studying the living Coelacanth, scientists have found that the fish gives birth to live young, unlike other fish.  Further discoveries both in Africa (off the coasts of Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya and Tanzania) as well as Asia, around Sulawesi, Indonesia, of living Coelacanth specimens have further widened the current geographical range of the Coelacanth.
A specimen of the Cretaceous coelacanth Coccoderma nudum from Germany.  On display at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History on the campus of the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
Unfortunately for this living fossil, it is labeled "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN, much like yesterday's living fossil, the mountain pygmy possum.  Just like the mountain pygmy possum, conservationist groups are working towards it's protection, trying to keep fisherman from fishing in the Coelacanth's habitat.  Hopefully, humans won't be the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, for this 400 million year old fish.

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