The coelacanth, which is related to lungfishes and tetrapods, was believed to have been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period. More closely related to tetrapods than to the ray-finned fish, coelacanths were considered transitional species between fish and tetrapods. On 23 December 1938, the first Latimeria specimen was found off the east coast of South Africa, off the Chalumna River (now Tyolomnqa). Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the fish among the catch of a local angler, Captain Hendrick Goosen. Latimer contacted a Rhodes University ichthyologist, J. L. B. Smith, sending him drawings of the fish, and he confirmed the fish's importance with a famous cable: "MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED."
Its discovery 66 million years after it was believed to have become extinct makes the coelacanth the best-known example of a Lazarus taxon, an evolutionary line that seems to have disappeared from the fossil record only to reappear much later. Since 1938, West Indian Ocean coelacanth have been found in the Comoros, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, in Simangaliso Wetland Park, and off the South Coast of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa.
The second extant species, Indonesian coelacanth, was described from Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia in 1999 by Pouyaud et al. based on a specimen discovered by Mark V. Erdmann in 1998 and deposited at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Erdmann and his wife Arnaz Mehta first encountered a specimen at a local market in September 1997, but took only a few photographs of the first specimen of this species before it was sold. After confirming that it was a unique discovery, Erdmann returned to Sulawesi in November 1997 to interview fishermen to look for further examples. A second specimen was caught by a fisherman in July 1998 and it was then handed to Erdmann.
The coelacanth has no real commercial value apart from being coveted by museums and private collectors. As a food fish it is considered worthless, as its tissues exude oils that give the flesh a distinctly unpleasant flavor. The coelacanth's continued survival may be threatened by commercial deep-sea trawling, in which coelacanths are caught as bycatch.
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