Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Fossil Fish Found Alive: Discovering the Coelacanth

Fossil Fish Found Alive: Discovering the Coelacanth

Sally M. Walker
For ages 10 and up
Lerner, 2002   ISBN: 1575055368

On December 22, 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the director of a South African museum, was looking through some fishing nets to see if there were any interesting potential specimens in the catch. She was amazed to see a large blue fish that had strange lobed fins and thick armored scales. She had seen a fish like this before when she had looked at the picture of a fossilized fish that had first appeared on Earth about 510 million years ago.

Courtenay-Latimer did her best to have the fish preserved, and since she could not find anyone willing to freeze it for her, she had a taxidermist preserve it as best he could. Then she contacted a fish specialist called J.L.B. Smith, asking him to come and take a look at her find. Eight weeks later, Smith finally got the opportunity to look at the fish and he was thrilled to see that his suspicions were confirmed. He was looking at an honest to goodness coelacanth, a species of fish that scientists believed were extinct.

After naming, examining, and writing about Courtenay-Latimer’s find, Smith set about trying to get another specimen. There is only so much you can learn from a specimen that has been stuffed. He wanted to be able to find out more about the fish.

Smith had leaflets made up offering a reward to anyone who brought him a coelacanth in good condition. He had to wait a long time before a trader called Eric Hunt finally managed to get a specimen from a fisherman in the Comoro Islands. Smith managed to persuade the Prime Minister of South African to authorize the use of a military plane to bring the fish back to the mainland. The find was a huge coup for Smith and for South Africa, and scientists learned a great deal from the specimen, which was intact. Many questions were answered, but many more remained. How many of the fish were there? Did they live in other parts of the world?

In this superbly written and carefully researched book, Sally M. Walker tells the extraordinary story of how scientists discovered that the coelacanth was not extinct after all. She gives the story context so that readers can understand why this find was so extraordinary, and readers of all ages will find it hard not to get caught up in the narrative.

The engaging text is accompanied by photos, prints, and maps.