Saving the coelacanth for science

On this day 80 years ago a young Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer responded to a telephone call from a fishing company informing her of a good catch aboard the fishing trawler the Nerine. Captained by Hendrik Goosen, the Nerine had been around Bird Island earlier in the day and en route back to East London a final fishing attempt was made off the Chalumna River. It was this lucky trawl that captured a coelacanth (unknown to science at the time). Capt Goosen used to inform Marjorie of many interesting finds and the Marine Gallery in the museum is testament to this.


Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer

Marjorie worked her way the piles of mostly shark aboard the Nerine before seeing the fin of a ‘most beautiful fish’. Her trials of getting the fish back to the museum are well documented. She wrote a letter and did a rough sketch of the fish (which she could not identify) and sent this to Rhodes University professor JLB Smith. He was not in Grahamstown at the time and received the letter 10 days later at his holiday cottage in Kynsna. In the mean time Marjorie had unfortunately thrown the innards of the fish away.

MCL drawing to JLB Smith

It is recorded by the late Margaret Smith (JLB Smith’s wife) that JLB Smith was aghast when he saw the drawing and was convinced it was a fossil fish – the coelacanth. This was confirmed when he visited the East London Museum in February 1939.

This holotype specimen was named Latimeria chalumnae (in honour of Marjorie and the river where it was trawled) and is mounted in the coelacanth gallery at the East London Museum.


Captain Hendrik is to be acknowledged as one the first ‘citizen scientists’of East London and Marjorie for saving the coelacanth for science.

I was privileged to know Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and to spend many hours with her before she passed on at the age of 97 in May 2004. There was much more to this first curator and then Director of the museum then just her name as the genus for the most famous fish in the world.

Kevin Cole (Principal Museum Natural Scientist)

MCL 95 Birthday with Kevin Cole

Majorie Courtenay-Latimer with Kevin Cole on her 95th birthday at the East London Museum


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Two pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps) strand at East London (South Africa)

pygmy sperm whale

Neil Schentke of Winterstrand discovered two rare whales of the same species stranded east of Winterstrand on the 30th October 2018. They have been identified as pygmy sperm whales (the larger of the two small sperm whales species). The stranding at Haga-Haga on the 13th October 2018 was the smaller dwarf sperm whale. The identification of these two pygmy sperm whales was confirmed by the shape and position of the dorsal fin – the hooked low-set dorsal fin was positioned behind the mid-back. The shape and number of teeth also assisted with the identification.


The hooked low-set dorsal fin on the 2.15 m male pygmy sperm whale. Photo: Kevin Cole

The animals were almost equal in length when measured with the female being a few centimeters longer than the male at 2.2 m (the male measured 2.15 m).


Illustrated is the broad, short flipper set high and far forward on the right side of the male pygmy sperm whale. Photo: Kevin Cole

There is a strange aspect to determining the sex in these cetaceans. Normally with male whales the genital slit and anus are further apart than for females, but with the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales the males have the genital slit almost at the middle of the belly – this differs from all other species of whale! This was noted during the investigation during the week.


Note the genital slit on the male pygmy sperm whale situated almost central to the belly. Photo: Kevin Cole

Unfortunately the inclement weather conditions (very strong winds) did not allow for a necropsy to be performed on the stranded animals. The quick succession of three short-headed sperm whale strandings does pose a few questions and adds to the tally of five previous records for the year in our area and a greater number of strandings for the coast extending to Port Elizabeth.

Presently there is a great drive by the NGO Coastwatch KZN to have legislation amended with regard to off shore surveys for gas and oil and the drilling component that accompanies such activities. A petition in this regard has been circulated calling for action with regard to the following; ‘In South Africa, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for oil and petroleum exploration activities is no longer mandatory because Section 39 of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act has been withdrawn. This effectively means the oil and gas industry polices and monitors itself.  Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) is applying for a reconnaissance permit for an area that extends from Mossel Bay to Richards Bay, 15 km from shore. This covers many environmentally sensitive areas, biologically important migration routes, and poses a risk to many species of whale and dolphin, fish and turtle, as well as to tourism and fisheries.’ This matter is also presently being debated by the Oceans not Oil coalition which has engaged the Petroleum Association of South Africa (PASA) to clarify how the Environmental Impact Assessment process is failing South Africans and the marine environment with regards to the oil and gas stream of Operation Phakisa.


This stretch of coast has produced a number of strandings over the past few years

Pygmy sperm whales are scarcely seen at sea and most of what we know about them is from strandings. When stranded they may appear to be slightly shark-like owing to the shape of the tiny jaw and false gills behind the eyes. They can grow to a maximum length of 3.3 m and occur in tropical to temperate waters of the ocean worldwide. They have been known to dive to 800 m and with a dive lasting more than 18 minutes. It is believed they can live for as long as 22 years.


East London Museum scientist Kevin Cole examines the 2.15 m male pygmy sperm whale. Note the almost shark-like bulbous appearance and teeth on the lower jaw only.

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Pregnant female dwarf sperm whale stranding at Haga-Haga (South Africa)

A 2.2 m female dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima)  stranded at Haga-Haga this past weekend (13th October 2018). It had a high parasitic worm load in the oesophagus and was carrying a female foetus (illustrated) . Dr Roger Ellis (EL Museum board member pictured) is thanked for assisting museum scientist Kevin Cole with the necropsy on the cetacean. These whales are rarely seen in the wild and are difficult to distinguish with the other small sperm whale species called the pygmy sperm whale. Two features which assisted in the identification was the erect dorsal fin centred  on the mid-back (illustrated) and the number and shape of the teeth. The pygmy sperm whale has a smaller less erect dorsal fin situated closer to the tail than the head. It also usually has more teeth in the lower jaw. Mrs Connie Oosthuizen of Marshstrand is thanked for reporting the stranding to the museum.

Kogia sima4-001.jpg


Daily Dispatch Wednesday 17th October 2018



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Good to note the value of museums

The article below was published in the Daily Dispatch on Tuesday 2 October 2018.


Coelacanth sparked student’s quest

Discovery of fossils in Sterkspruit a dream come true for EC researcher

It never dawned on 24- year-old Wits masters’ student in palaeontology, Cebisa Mdekazi, centre, that the huge find of dinosaurs fossils in Sterkspruit , perhaps the world 's biggest, would be found right next to her town of Whittlesea.

It never dawned on 24- year-old Wits masters’ student in palaeontology, Cebisa Mdekazi, centre, that the huge find of dinosaurs fossils in Sterkspruit , perhaps the world ‘s biggest, would be found right next to her town of Whittlesea.  Image: Lulamile Feni
A young woman scientist painstakingly chipping away in a massive dinosaur graveyard in Sterkspruit is an Eastern Cape woman to the core.

Twenty-four-year old Cebisa Mdekazi is one of the 11-strong team of students and researchers from around the world who are working on what is believed to be one of the largest fossil collections on earth.

Mdekazi grew up in Alice and Whittlesea and went to Adelaide Primary and Clarendon High in East London.

Her passion for paleontology was ignited during a high school outing when her Grade 9 class found out about the coelacanth at the East London Museum.

The ancient fish was discovered off the East London coast in 1938 and identified by the late East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, and named in 1939.

“I learnt about the coelacanth, a fish that was thought to have gone extinct about 65 million years ago until its discovery off the East London coast,” said Mdekazi.

The Wits University master’s student in paleontology never thought such a huge discovery of fossils would be found in her home region and that she would be one of those involved in researching the site.

Qhemegha village in Sterkspruit is less than 250km from her village of Lower Didimana Village in Whittlesea town.

“It’s so exciting that the massive dinosaur fossils were found not that far from my home and that I became involved in the research on the site,” Mdekazi said.

She went to Adelaide Primary School in Adelaide then moved to Clarendon Girls’ High in East London on a scholarship.

“I have always enjoyed the natural sciences, drawing inspiration from my mother, who is a retired primary school natural sciences teacher, as well as my life science teachers throughout my primary and high school years.

“ It came as no surprise when I pursued earth sciences at university.”

Her undergraduate studies were completed at Wits, majoring in geology and biology. She received an honours degree in paleontology from the same university.

She is currently working on understanding the evolution of locomotion (movement) in crocodiles and their ancestors.

She wants to complete her PhD degree before she reaches 30.

Mdekazi is working on the site with professors from five top universities – Oxford, Birmingham, Zurich, Wits and Johannesburg.

“It has been such an incredible experience digging fossils on sites in my home province and working with my people,” said the excited Mdekazi.

“We’ve been working in Qhemegha for just under two weeks and it has been an extremely successful trip in that we found plentiful fossils.

“We are hopeful that there is still much more to be discovered here,” said Mdekazi.

Although this is the fourth site she has worked on, this one is special.

“The three previous trips do not compare to what we found in Qhemegha.

“The whole Senqu Municipality is the most fossil-rich area I have ever come across.

“Usually one finds part of the skeleton or finds fossils that have fallen out of the rock and are no longer in a good situation.

“Some of the specimens that we found in Qhemegha are still within the rock which is the most ideal state because scientists are then able to estimate the age of that fossil quite accurately because the rocks help us understand the type of environment that the animal lived in.”

Mdekazi was humbled that the first person to find the fossilised bones was herdsman Dumangwe Tyhobela.

He only has a Grade 5 education, but his curiosity and grit was immense.

“Mr Tyhobela’s determination is such an inspiration because it shows that anyone with an interest in paleontology, irrespective of their level of education, can help contribute to a major discovery such this one,” she said.

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World Rhino Day 22 September 2018


White or Square-lipped rhinoceros

Museum scientist Kevin Cole has just returned from a trip to the Kruger National Park. A number of magnificent rhino sightings highlighted the need for humankind (as custodians of the natural world) to respect and fight for the survival of rhino species worldwide.


Homo sapiens are the only species that have the key to conserving the 50 million year evolutionary expression that are rhinos seen in the wild today. Both the white and black rhinoceros in southern Africa descended from the same species, the extinct Ceratotherium praecox which lived some 7 million years ago.

These creatures bring on a sense of awe to any visitor seeing them for the first time and play an ecological role in natural ecosystems that compliments other grazers and browsers living in protected areas.


The white rhinoceros pictured above is the second largest African land mammal and can weigh up to 2.3 tons. They consume a large amount of grass each day (estimates are as much as 5% of body mass). From about 12 years of age the males will hold territories.

The black rhino pictured below can weigh up to 1.2 tons and is a browser. They are solitary and territorial and can live up to 45 years. The calf of the black rhino runs behind the mother when they flee unlike the white rhino where the calf runs in front of the mother.


Note the hooked-lip on the black rhino as compared to the square lip on the white rhino

Spare a thought this Saturday (22 September) for rhino conservation and the rangers that protect these animals from poachers.

World Rhino Day is 22 September: 5 Rhino Species Forever

What is World Rhino Day?

World Rhino Day celebrates all five species of rhino: Black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos.

World Rhino Day is 22 September: 5 Rhino Species Forever!

When is World Rhino Day?

World Rhino Day is on September 22nd.

How did World Rhino Day get its start?

World Rhino Day was first announced by WWF-South Africa in 2010. The following year, World Rhino Day grew into an international success, encompassing both African and Asian rhino species, thanks to the efforts of two determined women …

What happened in 2011?

It all started with an email: In mid-2011, Lisa Jane of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was planning ahead for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found Rhishja’s blog. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of making World Rhino Day a day of celebration for all five rhino species. Meanwhile, the team at Rhino Africa prepared for their second World Rhino Day event in Cape Town, building on the success of South Africa’s popular 2010 campaign.

In the months that followed, the teams worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international success, both online and offline. World Rhino Day has since grown into a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, zoos, cause-related organizations, businesses, and concerned individuals from nearly every corner of the world!

Is there a theme for World Rhino Day?

Yes! “Five Rhino Species Forever” celebrates both the African and Asian rhino species. In addition, World Rhino Day is an opportunity to highlight efforts to debunk the myths and diminish the demand for rhino horn.

Is there more than one event on World Rhino Day?

Yes! It is believed that World Rhino Day is a success because it provides the opportunity for cause-related organizations, NGOs, zoos, and members of the public to celebrate World Rhino Day in their own unique ways. These activities varied from one participant to the next. Donors and partners are able to contribute to the organizations and initiatives of their choosing. Peaceful demonstrations, classroom projects, fundraising dinners, auctions and poster displays are just a few examples.

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Female humpback whale stranding at Cape Morgan

A 13 m female humpback whale was reported stranded yesterday at Cape Morgan (see attached map below).


An investigation by museum scientist, Kevin Cole revealed that the animal had died out at sea before being lodged on the rocks below and slightly to the west of the Cape Morgan lighthouse. The skull, mandible and upper jaw had been dislodged from the main body (probably on impact with the rocks). There was no other visible trauma to the body except for some small shark bite marks to the upper jaw (it is assumed that there was some predation on the floating carcass).


Skin and blubber samples were taken and will be sent to Bayworld in Port Elizabeth for analysis.

This is the second female humpback whale stranding along this coast in six weeks. The first was investigated at Cape Henderson on the 22 June 2018 (illustrated below).


Kevin Cole investigates the Cape Henderson humpback whale stranding

Mr Bryan Church (Strandloper Tail manager) reported earlier today that a local Kei Mouth resident Mr Rob Nel had spotted the whale floating in the area last Thursday (2 August 2018). The advanced state of decomposition attests to this. Mr Church and Mr Richard Warren-Smith (Morgan Bay Hotel) are thanked for reporting the whale to the museum.

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Notes for the upcoming lunar eclipse in East London (27 July 2018)

If we have clear skies on Friday 27 July 2018 then we may be able to witness one of the longest lunar eclipse events for a while. A full moon is required for a lunar eclipse. The earth will begin to cast a shadow on the moon at approximately 19h14 (a penumbral eclipse will begin) and at 20h24 a partial eclipse will begin (the moon will start to get red). Light is filtered by the Earth’s gaseous atmosphere – the green to violet range of colours gets filtered out more than the red and folk on Earth will see the Moon presenting as a rusty,  red or dark grey (see the photographs below).

Chintsa 2015

These photos were taken in 2011 at Chintsa East. Photo: Kevin Cole

At 21h30 a total eclipse of the moon will begin and an almost completely red moon should be visible. The maximum eclipse (when the moon is closest to the center of the Earth’s shadow) will occur at 22h21.

The total eclipse will end at 23h13 and the partial eclispse will end at 00h19.


Images captured in Beacon Bay September 2015: Photo Kevin Cole

This will be one of the longest total lunar eclipse events to be viewed from South Africa in a century. In billions of years from now lunar eclipses will not occur as the moon moves away from the Earth at approximately 4 cm a year.

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