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Coelacanth: The Surprise Living Fossil

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The coelacanth was considered an extinct "missing link" fish until examples of the fish began to be caught alive all around the Indian Ocean.

The coelacanth was a "missing link" type fish that went extinct 65 million years ago, but scientists continued to study its bone structure for clues about the evolution from fish to tetrapods. There was only one problem: the fish wasn't extinct! The creature was re-discovered in 1938, and today fascinates scientists and fossil enthusiasts as a "living fossil." The discoverer was Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, a museum curator who was allowed to search through a local fishermen's catch in East London (a port town near the South African range of the fish). She was on the hunt for unusual specimens, and she certainly found one! for The fish lives in just a few small regions of the world, including the Comoros Islands of East Africa, the South African range, and another in Indonesia.

Some features of the coelacanth cause scientists to point to it as one of the early links between fish and land creatures. The first is its visible lobed fins, which protrude out of either side of its body and bear resemblance to legs without any imagination. These lobes are characteristic of other fish in similar and later degrees of evolution and are indicative of the eventual appearance of legs. Also unusual is the fish's extremely thick scales, which only appear in extinct specimens. Another singular feature is the fish's intercranial joint, which allows the front part of the head to be lifted when feeding. No other living creature boasts this feature.

Both the Comoros and Indonesian types of the coelacanth are considered endangered, although new finds are increasing the number of the fish that are thought to exist. The Comoros type is a striking blue in color while the Indonesian type appears a dull brown (pictured). Mitsubishi engineers have come up with one method of immortalizing the fish by creating robotic models of it. The project is designed both for submarine research and for a possible sales market. There are plans by the company to create a number of fish robots that truly are extinct.

Many stories similar to the coelacanth have been told by popular literature and native cultures, including cryptozoological creatures such as flying reptiles in Texas and Diplodocus-like creatures in the Congo, but the coelacanth is the first modern success story. The coelacanth has been aptly termed the zoological find of the 20th century, and each one that is found is proudly photographed and treasured as a piece of living history.