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December 23rd – The first living coelacanth, a living fossil, is caught

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

A preserved specimen of a coelacanth (not the one found in 1938 however)

On this day in 1938, a living coelacanth was fished out and caught off the coast of South Africa. What is remarkable about this fish is that the coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct 68 million years ago.

On December 23rd, 1938, Marjorie Latimer, a curator of a small natural sciences museum in East London, South Africa, was speaking to her fisherman friend who informed her of an unique fish that got caught in his net. According to Latimer, the fish appeared to be “the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, five feet long, and a pale mauve blue with iridescent markings.” Latimer had never seen this fish before, and proceeded to make a sketch of the fish. She then mailed this sketch to J. L. B. Smith, a ichthyology (the study of fish) professor at Rhodes University, also in South Africa. On January 3rd, 1939, the professor telegraphed Latimer back with the following message: “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS”. The professor recognized that the catch on December 23rd was that of a coelacanth, a fish that existed in the time of the dinosaurs and thought to have gone extinct a long time ago.

The coelacanth is commonly called a “living fossil”, or an organism that has changed very little over an evolutionary long time. Other living fossils that exist today include the gingko tree, horseshoe crabs, crocodiles, hagfish, the nautilus, and mudskippers.

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