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Coelacanth Find Stuns Experts

Researchers at the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology (JLBSI) in Grahamstown, South Africa were amazed when they recently received video material of coelacanths swimming in the waters off KwaZulu-Natal. The fact that six different coelacanths were observed, including adults and juveniles, suggests that a viable population of the "fossil fish" is residing and reproducing in this area.

"I was exhilarated by this incredible discovery," says Dr Phil Heemstra of the JLBSI. The first live coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) - a species thought to have been extinct for 70 million years - was found near East London in 1938. The fish was saved for science by Marjorie Courtney-Latimer, the young curator of the East London Museum and described and named by Dr JLB Smith. The discovery of a population of coelacanths at the Comoro Islands 14 years later, lead scientists to believe that the East London find was a stray occurrence. After the November sighting of coelacanths at Sodwana Bay in the St Lucia Marine Protected Area, researchers are of the opinion that they have discovered a separate population from those in the Comores and that the species could be more widespread in the western Indian Ocean.

In early November this year Pieter Venter, the leader of the dive team that discovered the coelacanth, contacted Heemstra about information on these fish. Venter was certain he had seen three coelacanths in a dive in the canyon at Sodwana Bay, and planned to go back with three friends and a video camera to document the presence of the fish.

On 29 November, Venter sent Heemstra an image file attached to an email message to show him three coelacanths that they had filmed at a depth of 108 metres. "There was no doubt that they had found the real thing. I was stunned!" says Heemstra. The death of diver Dennis Harding in this operation greatly saddened everyone involved in the discovery.

The Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Vali Moosa, acted swiftly to legislate for the protection of the population, and a management plan is being prepared by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service in collaboration with the Marine and Coastal Management division of DEAT. "The extremely rapid response of the South African government to immediately confer additional protection to these fish is to be highly commended," says Dr Mark Erdmann, Marine Protected Areas Advisor in Indonesia. "This provides a model case-study for the governments of many developing nations to learn from when it comes to protecting their own biodiversity."

Researchers at the JLBSI, a national research facility of the National Research Foundation (NRF), are already in negotiations with Prof Hans Fricke of Germany - considered to be the world expert on the coelacanth - to bring his submersible to South Africa to initiate a research programme on the Sodwana coelacanths. Fricke was the first person to film live coelacanths in the Comoro Islands. The researchers are also looking into the possibility of using the Delta submersible from the USA, which will be in Durban in January 2001, for this purpose. The Delta is currently exploring a shipwreck off the Xora River on the Eastern Cape coast.

"The discovery of a population of coelacanths off Sodwana Bay is a stunning reminder of how exciting science is and of how little we know about our own backyard when it comes to the marine environment along our coast. The episode is another fine example of the interdependence of science and the interested public - and that the public will only be interested if they are properly informed in the first place," says Dr Paul Skelton, Director of the JLBSI. According to Skelton, the discovery has a special significance for the JLBSI in the light of their expertise, the linkages and their obligation to enhancing marine conservation through a well-planned research effort on the coelacanths at Sodwana. "We are excited and looking forward to further discoveries about the African coelacanths," he says.  

Enquiries: JLBSI - Dr Phil Heemstra / Margo Shering
Tel 046-636-1002, fax 046-622-2403

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