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.

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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.

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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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About East London Museum Science

Conservation Biologist East London Museum South Africa
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