Did you know that when the living coelacanth was discovered off the coast of South Africa in the 1930s it was considered the greatest zoological discovery of the 20th Century? The group of fish known as coelacanths (closely related to lungfish) are known from the fossil record ranging from the Early Devonian (~410 million years ago) up until ~70 million years ago when they suddenly disappear. It was long thought that they had perished alongside the non-avian dinosaurs and all the other animals that went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era. Hence the discovery of the living “Lazarus taxon” Latimeria, identified and described by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and J.L.B. Smith, caused quite a stir. This is what is known as a “ghost lineage” where we can infer the existence of an organism (we know it must have been alive) but there is no evidence known in the fossil record.
In addition to Prof. Richard Cloutier, this week we have been lucky enough to have ANOTHER coelacanth expert working with us at Flinders University. Dr Hugo Dutel from the University of Bristol has just published an incredible paper in the prestigious journal Nature examining the evolution and development of the brain and braincase of the living coelacanth (Latimeria) through ontogeny (the origin and development of an organism), in this case he has a growth series from foetus to adult. The work is all the more remarkable due to the rare nature of these elusive, deep-sea, ovoviviparous, lobe-finned fishes.
Having both Prof. Richard Cloutier and Dr Hugo Dutel in the same city meant that it was a no-brainer to hold a FUPS (Flinders University Palaeontology Society) “Palaeo in the Pub” event. I was the third invited speaker for the special theme “Old Four Legs – the 400-million-year story of the coelacanth.” Richard gave the group an introduction to coelacanths, including the remarkable discovery of Latimeria 80 years ago as well as a brief overview of fossil coelacanths. I then spoke about the discovery and description of a new species of fossil coelacanth from the Gogo Formation that we are working on together, and finally Hugo spoke about his recent work on the living coelacanth.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to have Hugo here with John, Richard and I to talk all about coelacanths (my second favourite group of fishes). We have made good progress in our work on the new coelacanth, so expect an update on that shortly!