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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 01:38 GMT


New 'living fossil' identified

The coelacanth first appeared over 400 million years ago

What a beast! This is a new species of coelacanth discovered off the coast of Indonesia.

The find has surprised and delighted scientists who had believed such creatures were restricted to a small stretch of water around the Comoros, east of South Africa. Now it would appear there are two distinct communities living 9,000 km apart.

[ image:  ]
The first living coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was discovered in 1938 when marine biologists hailed the fish as a "living fossil" - an animal that has existed virtually unchanged since it first appeared over 400 million years ago.

Since the 1930s, fishermen have pulled in about 200 other coelacanths. The catches have been so few and in such a restricted area that scientists assumed they were dealing with a small an isolated population living only in the Mozambique Strait, or even around just one or two of the Comoros islands (Grand Comoros and Anjouan).

New thinking

But the chance discovery of a fish last year near Menadotua Island in the Celebes archipelago of Indonesia has forced a rethink of the creature's evolutionary history. Detailed analysis of its body features and two stretches of its DNA has now revealed the fish is a new - though closely-related - species of coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis).

The research, published in the Comptes rendus de l'Académie des Sciences, indicate that the two species went their separate ways about 1.5 million years ago.

[ image: Latimeria menadoensis: The fish takes its name from the island near where it was found]
Latimeria menadoensis: The fish takes its name from the island near where it was found
This is not that long ago, given the coelacanths' long history which began in the Devonian Period, a time when fish were probably the only vertebrates in existence.

The Indoensian coelacanth was taken from an area which has seen recent volcanic activity. It is an environment that is similar to the habitat of the Comorean species. It seems these fish like the crevices that form when lava flows into the sea. They are ideal hiding places.

Semi-sedentary fish

Although studies have shown the coelacanth can move several dozens of kilometres to get from one cave to another, it is a semi-sedentary fish and does not like to go to great depths or into open water.

[ image: Coelacanths seem to like hiding in rocky crevices]
Coelacanths seem to like hiding in rocky crevices
It is highly unlikely that the species from the Comoros could have travelled nearly 10,000 km, negotiating difficult currents, to reach Indonesian coasts, and vice versa.

This is one more reason why the animals must be two distinct species, the scientists conclude.

The research on the new fish was conducted by a joint team from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD, formerly ORSTOM), LIPI (Division of Zoology Research and Development Centre for Biology, Indonesia) and CRIFI-RIFF (Central Research Institute for Fisheries, Indonesia).

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