Fish story: How a coelacanth discovery set off a flurry of science, subterfuge

Indonesian coelacanth

The Indonesian coelacanth, photographed off Bunaken Island in 1998. (© MV Erdmann)

The 1938 discovery of a coelacanth is an oft-told tale.

This species of fish was thought to have been extinct for 65 million years when one was caught in the western Indian Ocean.

Lesser known is the tale of a coelacanth sighting thousands of miles away in the mid-1990s, when one was spotted for sale at an Indonesian fish market by a marine biologist on his honeymoon.

The story of that discovery — and how it was told to the world — is filled with shocking twists and turns. At the center of it all was Mark Erdmann, now vice president of Asia-Pacific Marine Programs at Conservation International.

Joe Rowlett recounted the story in this recent post on Reefs.com.

In July 2018, another population of Indonesian coelacanths was discovered in Raja Ampat in the eastern fringe of the country, but Erdmann — the honeymooner who had spotted the fish in the ’90s — was not surprised.

“I long suspected coelacanths would be found in Raja Ampat,” he told Human Nature. If anyone could have such a hunch, it would be Erdmann, who has spent his career cataloging marine life in eastern Indonesia.

“This discovery affirms that these fish are thriving where no one predicted, and it proves that there’s a lot more about the oceans that we still don’t know.”

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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