Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Case of the Silver Coelacanth

Dear Constant Readers,

Hinted at previously in this post, I was quite surprised to see an article published in a journal use a piece of art as evidence. Nutty creationists took superficial glances at misinterpreted pieces to make broad proclamations, surely a journal could do better! And in fact they do much better. But before we get into that, we should probably discuss the coelacanth a bit.

Not everybody is probably familiar with the story but hopefully they at least know the fish a bit. Coelacanths are lobe-finned fishes known as Sarcopterygians a group including lungfish, extinct rhipidistians and tetrapods such as us. Coelacanths were assumed to be extinct but a monumental 1938 discovery proved that they were still swimming about near to Comoros Islands. They weren't our direct ancestors or as drastic a survivor as Monoplacophorans or even vampire squids although I suppose it was still pretty exciting for ichthyologists. And Cryptozoologists too, they can't stop using this as support of cryptids...despite it never going through a cryptid (only known through anecdotal/inconclusive evidence). Coelacanths continued to surprise scientists with additional populations found off Africa quite recently but what is really impressive is the Indonesian coelacanth. There was a bit of deja vu in Indonesia in 1997 where a mysterious brown (not blue) fish was caught and was surprisingly identified as another species of coelacanth. Aside from the coloration to morphology between the species is quite similar despite them splitting off 30-40 million years ago (Inoue et al 2005). While those species appear to have split due to the collision of the Indian subcontinent into Asia from a more widespread ancestral population, might there be coelacanths elsewhere?

Cryptozoologist Michel Raynal suggests just that in an online article. He discussed the history of the coelacanth from not-so-out-of-place specimens from South Africa*, Madagascar, and Kenya and then goes on to speculate on more exotic habitats. There were very vague reports of the fish from Bermuda and Korea mentioned in a letter to Prof. Smith (the describer of the fish) which were in all likelihood cranky. Interestingly he mentioned earlier reports of the Indonesian coelacanth (from 1995) that could have made this a genuine ex-cryptid had anybody actually payed attention to the reports and looked for the fish. Australian, Spanish, Jamaican, Californian, and Floridian coelacanths have all be claimed as well but the cases are vague enough that they may be anglerfish or (quite improbably) stray lungfish. Unidentified scales were also mentioned from those locations but the most famous artifacts are the silver coelacanths.

*This is obviously not a problem, the first specimen was found there after all. He mentioned a remarkable painting of the fish allegedly 13 years before the discovery which is interesting but proves nothing of course (this isn't a cryptid!).

At last, proof in some form that coelacanths have been known for a while somewhere outside of the Indian Ocean! Right? While Cryptozoologists speculated on Spanish coelacanths or possibly coelacanths from the Gulf of Mexico using these artifacts (and vague reports of captures and a goblet and painting), the tangible artifacts were examined by unbiased scientists. One of the silver artifacts (1964) bore several features unique to the famous holotype of the coelacanth including features such as unnaturally bent back "legs" and damage to the caudal fin. The similarities are so suspicious that the authors suggest that a photograph of the holotype was used as a model. A much larger model "found" in 1965 was examined by the world authority on Spanish art who pointed out that while it was old looking it showed many characteristics of much more modern Spanish art (naturalistic depiction, lack of fantasy engravings, sharp edges not smoothed by handling) and was bought for a suspiciously low amount, even for a piece of modern art. Areas not available in photograph such as the unique gular ("throat") bones were depicted in a speculative manner. Raynal writes this off as variation in a new species. It should also be noted that analysis of the fish was done via photograph and not handling until 2000 with the paper's study. These pieces were not done in 16th-17th century Mexico, but between 1954 and 1965 in Spain.

There will always be some Cryptozoologists pulling at straws and denying this strong evidence, but they have to accept that these pieces are not evidence. I wonder with more research if it would be possible to track down exactly who made these pieces somewhere in Spain. They certainly are quite pretty and I'm surprised nobody is selling replicas of them. If I ever win the lottery or use knowledge or Organic chem to sell drugs (I didn't say what kind) I wouldn't mind buying one. The authors are very careful and wise in saying these artifacts are not proof of anything and they don't discount new populations of coelacanths. If there is any truth to these vague rumors, perhaps a new population or two could be discovered. As with the rumors of Indonesian coelacanths prior to their discovery any vague prior indication will likely be forgotten or totally overlooked. A population in the gulf of Mexico would be quite out of place and would require a near-cosmopolitan distribution to the genus or an even more distant relative. Given how this species almost flew entirely under the radar on several occasions before it is a possibility. However, it is a possibility without any hard or convincing proof.

I myself am still here pining for some choristoderes or albanerpetontids or some other overlooked potential relict myself.

Wow, two posts in a day.



Fricke, Hans and Plante, Raphael. 2001. Silver Coelacanths from Spain are not proofs of a pre-scientific discovery. Environmental Biology of Fishes: 61, 461-463. Available: Here

Inoue, Jun G. et al. 2005. The mitochondrial genome of Indonesian coelacanth Laterima menadoensis (Sarcopterygii: Coelacanthiformes) and divergence time estimation between the two coelacanths. Gene: 349, 227-235. Available: Here


Caitling said...

It sounds like this post is a Sherlock Holmes novel. I wonder if you get three wishes if you catch it!

There's really nothing stopping the coelacanth from living somewhere else, why do people act so surprised?

Ha, you should use your knowledge of o.c to sell drugs, of the chocolate sort!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if there are other populations of coelocanths out there.

I wonder if anyone's tried looking for other places suitable for them...