9780060194956 / 0060194952

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth





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About the book:

In 1938, an alert young South African museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer came upon a curious specimen in a fisherman's nets: a fish with "four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy dog tail," one that she thought resembled not a living being so much as a china ornament. When she could turn up no written descriptions of the find, she turned to other scientists for help, touching off a worldwide wave of interest in the creature that would come to be called the "coelacanth," long thought to be extinct, and now celebrated as one of the world's oldest species.

That interest took many forms, writes journalist Samantha Weinberg in her entertaining and instructive case study in scientific detective work. It spurred the development of new deep-sea craft to explore the farthest reaches of the ocean; it touched off more than one controversy over the coelacanth's lineage, and even over which nation claimed sovereignty over its oceanic haunts; and it launched or advanced the careers of dozens of researchers. The coelacanth continues to make news. In 1998, a young American scholar found a specimen in Indonesia, far from the western Indian Ocean waters where the coelacanth was thought to dwell. Although some scientists decried the discovery as a hoax at worst and an aberration at best, the find showed that the creature's range was widespread. It demonstrated, too, that international cooperation was necessary if the coelacanth were to be protected in the future, "continuing to exist," as Weinberg writes, "after this extraordinary duration of time." --Gregory McNamee

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