A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to give a talk at the 95th birthday of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. Anybody who isn’t a science geek could be forgiven for not knowing who she was. Let’s say it would be like a budding fashion designer being asked to give the keynote speech at a birthday party for Coco Chanel. Marjorie’s photograph (thanks to a children’s encyclopaedia of animals) had been the first scientist’s face I could identify.
Here’s the photo I looked at as a tot.
She’s famous because she discovered the ceolacanth, a very ancient fish. The fish is famous because it’s a living relic, relatively unchanged over the course of the last 200 million years.
Now, while Marjorie didn’t split the atom, figure out continental drift, or even write any books on the species, she was inspirational to me as a child from the point of view of getting out there and discovering something. Of being amongst it. The fact that that one act was important enough for her picture to end up in an encyclopaedia (the only person, in fact, to appear in any of the the 35 volumes), was testimony to the romance of the story.
I don’t remember what my talk on the night was about. What does stand out from the evening was the cup of tea and bit of cake afterwards with Marjorie. We chatted about the coelacanth, (think of Coco chatting about deciding to design a little black dress over a double martini and a cigarette). The East London Museum had just opened a new exhibition on the fish, so there was a lot to discuss.
People unfamiliar with science, may not have heard of the coelocanth. Or, if they have, still may not realise what’s so important about it. The modern coelacanth is a member of the very ancient order of “lobe finned” fishes – their fins are fleshy, like limbs, up to the point where the rays (translucent bits) begin. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem particularly exciting. However, scientists had long thought that a structure like that must have been part of the anatomy of precursor to whatever animals heaved themselves out of the ancient oceans 375 million years ago.
The really amazing thing about being in the presence of a ‘living fossil’ (the term isn’t actually correct, as the species has evolved; it just maintains many of its group’s ancestral characteristics) is that their behaviour can be observed, which helps evolutionary biologists test their ideas. And the really amazing thing about the coelacanth is their behaviour (discovered only recently with the aid of remote underwater filming): they use their fins to stroll over the rocky ocean floor. We can actually see the very ancient past moving around before our eyes.
I think this fish isn’t the household word it should be. Sure, it’s famous, but doesn’t have the mass appeal that dinosaurs do. I realise it can’t eat you (thereby losing important credibility with 8-year-olds) but, being alive, it connects us to our ancient evolutionary past the way dinosaurs can’t.
Now, having said that, the coelacanth is still well enough known to inspire some interesting artistic output. Here are a couple of examples that I like. This incredible peace of origami is by the artist Galen. (A lot of other very impressive origami out there – possibly the subject of another post.)
However, my favourite representation of the animal is the first one ever done from life – the sketch by Marjorie herself. Aside from being intimately connected to its history, it’s got a marvelous exhuberance, like the illustration from childrens’ book.
Just recently a second (living) species of coelacanth has turned up in South-East Asia. There sometimes seems to be very little left in the world to discover. It’s good to know that, occasionally, people are proving that wrong.