THE coelacanth YAK'S CORNER: JUST FOR KIDS

December 21, 1998

WHAT IS IT? The Coelacanth is one of the rarest and most famous fish - a real piscine (PIE-seen), or fish, celebrity. It's amazingly beautiful, with a long, stocky body and silvery blue scales. Adults can be as long as 6 feet.

WHY IS IT FAMOUS? In the 19th century, scientists found many coelacanth (SEE-luh-kanth) fossils, but no live specimens. They assumed the fish disappeared with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Then in 1938, a dead coelacanth was found in a South African fish market.

WHAT HAPPENED? Scientists from all over the world flocked to South Africa. Local fishermen started catching "living fossils" to sell to the scientists. It wasn't easy - the fish live in caves at depths between about 325 and 980 feet. But things got out of hand. In the past 60 years, 70 coelacanths have been caught, driving the species to near-extinction.

WHY IS THE FISH IN THE NEWS? Last year, Mark Erdmann, a U.S. biologist, spotted a dead coelacanth in a fish market in Indonesia - more than 6,000 miles from what scientists thought was its only home in the waters of Madagascar, a large island off eastern Africa. Recently, fishermen caught a live specimen, but it died from stress.

WHY IS IT INTERESTING? The coelacanth is a distant relative of the first animals that crawled from the ocean onto land. It is one of only four fish species that have muscular, leg-like structures instead of fins. The coelacanth has six such "legs," which allow it to swim in very nonfishy ways. An underwater video showed it swimming vertically, as if it were standing on its head.

WHAT ELSE IS DIFFERENT ABOUT IT? It is one of the few fish species that have live babies. Most fish release eggs into the water. Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York discovered this after cutting open an adult specimen. They found four 1-foot-long babies inside!

- Patricia Chargot

Source: Gerald Smith, director, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan

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