Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

by Samantha Weinberg

(originally published in hardcover by HarperCollins in 2000,
and in paperback from Fourth Estate, 256 pages)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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A reviewer with theories profound,
But not necessarily sound,
Said, "This fish, once extinct,
Re-evolved as God winked,"
And coelacanth fanciers frowned.

In a remarkable book, Samantha Weinberg tells the story of a remarkable fish. From the time Louis Agassiz discovered the first coelacanth fossil in 1839, this four-limbed fish with distinctive lobed fins has been an ichthyological cause celebre. Dating back approximately 400 million years to the Devonian period, when "nothing lived on land save for a few spiky, low plants, some scorpions, and other insects," this creature is a prime candidate for the aquatic ancestor of the first vertebrates to crawl out of the sea. Could this fossil oddity be our many-times-great grandspecies?

As new life forms were exploding on land, coelacanth species flourished throughout the world's oceans and lakes. Then the fish disappeared suddenly, most likely a victim of the great extinction event that claimed the dinosaurs and the majority of other species on the planet.

Such was the state of scientific knowledge as the Austral summer of 1938-39 began. In the South African coastal city of East London, on the Indian Ocean not far from where it meets the Atlantic, 31-year-old Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had established a reputation as curator of the town's two-room museum. In seven years, she had completely revamped its collection, and trawler captains like Hendrik Goosen knew she was always on the lookout for unusual specimens. When Goosen discovered a strange, five-foot long, blue-finned fish among his ton and a half of sharks, he phoned Ms. Courtenay-Latimer as soon as he brought the Nerine into port.

Though she did not recognize what Captain Goosen had brought her for Christmas, the young curator immediately appreciated its rarity. She sketched the fish and sent an urgent letter to noted ichthyologist JLB Smith. Because of the holidays, her letter did not reach Professor Smith for several days. Lacking sufficient formalin or suitable refrigeration for so large a catch, Ms. Courtenay-Latimer did the best she could. She took the fish, which the astonished professor would soon identify as a coelacanth, to the local taxidermist.

For the remainder of his life, the brilliant, driven, and prickly professor could think of little else but this living fossil species. It was fifteen years before he identified another specimen in the Comoros Islands off Madagascar. He could not have done so without the improbable help of South African Prime Minister D. F. Malan, whose Apartheid policies were founded on creationist beliefs.

Those are just the first of many fascinating fish -- and human -- stories. Ms. Weinberg hooks her readers and doesn't release them until they have shared one unlikely tale after another. Her cast of characters includes politicians, conservationists, adventurers, a Mesoamerican or Filipino silversmith who crafted models of coelacanths centuries before Capt. Goosen caught one, and a pair of scientists whose honeymoon pictures led the world to a population of coelacanths living in deep-water caves off Indonesia.

She leaves readers eager to discover what other surprises the coelacanth, A Fish Caught in Time, has in store for them.

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is the author of several children's science books, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch: Create and Run Your Own Weather Station.