On December 22, 1938, Hendrik Goosen, captain of a trawler approaching the South African port of East London caught an unusual fish, 1.5 m long and weighing 60 kg, near the mouth of the Chalumna River. The town’s museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer (1907–2004), arranged for a taxidermist to prevent its further decay. She then called in James Leonard Brierley Smith (1897–1968), a professor of chemistry and amateur ichthyologist, who recognized it as a living specimen of coelacanth, a creature thought to have been long extinct. It was fourteen years before another was found, near the island of Anjouan in the Comoros archipelago.
Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae)
The fossil record seemed to show that, as far as we could know,
The coelacanth had vanished from the scene.
Its existence had been spacious, from Devonian to Cretaceous,
But science thought that’s all there’d ever been.
Then one day in ’thirty-eight, curator Marge was in a state –
She was puzzled, but excited to her core.
For a fish had just been caught which astonished her. She thought,
“I have never seen the like of it before!”
“This fish is quite unique, so, before it starts to reek,
I’ll take it back by cab to my museum.
Then I’ll search the world in earnest for a skilful taxidermist
Who’ll preserve its features so that folks can see ’em.”
That done, our Marge was chuffed to see the great fish stuffed,
And telegraphed James Leonard Brierley Smith.
He took one look, appraising. . . “A coelacanth – amazing!
This could become a modern urban myth!
“Now then, what can be its name? Who deserves the finder’s fame?”
He knew that only Marge deserved the praise.
“You saved the thing, it’s true, so I’ll name it after you:
Latimeria chalumnae, to coin a phrase!
“We must find some more of these, so I’ve hatched a cunning wheeze:
I will put up ‘Wanted’ posters all around,
Then the fishermen can match this fish’s portrait ’gainst their catch.”
And in ’fifty-two, another one was found.
So Smith pulled strings, and flew to Anjouan. He knew
He must wrest the thing away from French control.
But the Frenchies wanted fame in this living-fossil game,
And refused poor Brierley Smith his rightful rôle.
Since then, we’ve learned much more. When they’re near the ocean floor,
They may often seem to stand upon their head;
But today there is no doubt they have an electronic snout
Which can sniff out wriggly things so they get fed.
They hang out beneath the waves in the darkest ocean caves,
And give birth to live young coelacanths – it’s true!
But it’s thanks to Brierley Smith that we now have facts, not myth.
(Oh, and Marge and Captain Hendrik, thank you too.)