By: Norman Ali Bassam Ali Taher Khalaf
On Friday 14.03.1987, I have visited, with the family, the Science & Natural History Museum in Kuwait City, State of Kuwait.
One of the various Halls was the Fish Hall. It contains a big collection of local fishes, which was caught off the Arabian Gulf coast of Kuwait.
A rare species of fish was also displayed, the Coelacanth. It was a gift from the Government of the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros to the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister H.E. Al-Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who in turn gave it as a gift to the Science & Natural History Museum in August 1976.
David Attenborough (1979) in his book "Life on Earth" writes: "Many species of coelacanth have been found as fossils. They are not large - thirty centimetres or so in length. Some specimens have been preserved in miraculous detail with every scale and fin-ray present. A juvenile was uncovered in the rocks of Illinois with traces of its yolk sack beneath its belly, plain to see. They are most abundant in deposits about 400 million years old, but thereafter they become scarcer and none has been found in rocks younger than 70 million years. Since they were flourishing during the period when the land was invaded and since they certainly possessed limb-like fins, it seemed likely that they were the creatures from which the first land vertebrates were descended. Their fossils were therefore studied with great care to try and determine exactly how they moved and how they breathed. But scientists reconciled themselves to the fact that the answers to such questions would never be known with certainty since the fish had obviously become extinct long ago.”
Attenborough (1979) continues: “And then, in 1938, a trawler fishing off the coast of South Africa brought up a very strange fish. It was large, nearly two metres long, with powerful jaws and heavy armoured scales. After the catch had been landed at East London, the curator of the small local museum, Miss Courtenay-Latimer, came down to look it over. She noticed this peculiar fish and although she was not a fish specialist, she became convinced that it was of great importance. She wrote to Professor J.B.L. Smith of Grahamstown University, the greatest authority on African fish, describing it briefly. Before he could get to the specimen, its entrails had decomposed so badly that they had to be thrown away, so it was a gutted specimen that he eventually saw. In spite of this, and the fact that it was so large, he recognised it immediately as a coelacanth. He named it Latimeria and informed an astonished world that a creature thought to have been extinct for 70 million years was still alive."
David Attenborough (1979) added: "The discovery was hailed as the scientific sensation of the century and a huge search for another specimen was mounted. Leaflets and posters carrying a picture of Latimeria and offering a huge reward were distributed among the countless fishing villages that dot the coasts of southern and eastern Africa. But without result. Then, fourteen years later, after it had seemed that this strange fish had appeared only to disappear totally, another was caught, not off South Africa but a thousand miles away in Anjouan, one of the tiny Comoro Islands that lie in the Indian Ocean midway between Madagascar and the coast of Tanzania. The first one, it seems, was a stray, for the fishermen of the Comoros said that the coelacanth was no stranger to them. They caught one or two each season in depths of about two or three hundred metres. They did not often fish for them deliberately, for a coelacanth fights hard when it is hooked and a man might have to struggle with one of them for many hours before it could be hauled on board his canoe. And after all that trouble, its flesh is oily and not particularly good to eat. Indeed, almost the most valuable part of the coelacanth anatomy, to the Comorians, is its rough heavy scales. They are very useful for rubbing down inner tubes when mending a puncture.”
Attenborough (1979) continues: “Since that time, several dozen more coelacanths have been caught and paradoxically, science now knows more about Latimeria than many an abundant fish. A pregnant female has been caught with young inside her attached to their yolk sacs, just like the Illinois fossil, showing that the species does not lay its eggs but gives birth to live young. But because it is so powerful a fish, such a doughty fighter and has to be dragged up from such depths, Latimeria very seldom reaches the shore alive."
Attenborough (1979) added: “One of the fishermen brought a Coelacanth in, lashed to the side of his canoe. It, too, was nearly dead, but he was persuaded to release it in a bay long enough for it to be filmed with an underwater camera as it swam slowly above the bottom. And indeed, it did hold its stout pectoral fins away from the sides of its body, and it was not hard to imagine that had it been vigorous, it could have used them to help it move over the rocky sea floor of its true environment. What is more, it was also clear that, mechanically, such fins would be of real assistance out of water as in it, had the fish, like its ancient forebears, been living in shallow water and become stranded.”
John E. McCosker (1979) in his paper "Inferred Natural History of the Living Coelacanth" writes: "An hypothetical life history of Latimeria chalumnae can be constructed on the basis of its anatomy, diet, catch records, and Comoran oceanographic and meteorological data. On that basis, it appears that Latimeria behaves like a large, reef-associated piscivorous grouper.”
The ovoviviparous reproductive system is a specialization related to the retention of urea, not unlike that of the ovovivaparous elasmobranchs. The large 163 cm female of 5 January 1972 contained 20 eggs, 8.5-9 cm in diameter and 300-344 g in weight (Millot and Anthony, 1974; McCosker, 1979).
McCosker (1979) continues: “Although it is possible that some may have aborted during capture, it appears that they represent the normal complement of a pregnant female. The only known embryos were near term and indicate that length at birth is more than 32 cm (Smith et al. 1975). The estimated gestation period is approximately 13 months (not unlike many elasmobranchs) with births presumably occurring in February (Smith et al. 1975; Hureau and Ozouf, 1977). The juvenile Latimeria are probably predatory as indicated by their dentition and jaw structure. The allometric growth of the upper jaw and head length (McAllister and Smith, 1978) would assist the predatory behavior of young fish. The smallest Latimeria captured on hook and line is 42.5 cm long and weighs 800 g. Its age, first estimated to be 3.5 years by Anthony and Robineau (1976), has been reinterpreted to be one year or less (Hureau and Ozouf, 1977). Age and growth estimates made from scale analysis suggest that the largest females (180 cm) are nearly 11 years old. It appears that females attain a larger length and weight than males (McAllister and Smith, 1978; McCosker, 1979), a condition shared by certain sharks and probably related to the reproductive commitment to ovoviviparity and pregnancy.”
McCosker (1979) added: “The limited geographic distribution of Latimeria must in some way be related to the reduced vagility which accompanies its live-bearing reproductive mode. The lower depth limit of Latimeria distribution has not been delimited, but it is quite likely that the seamount chain between the Comoros and the African coast is traversable by juveniles and/or adults. The chance discovery of a Latimeria off South Africa in 1938 has not been repeated, in spite of an actively continuing and reasonably informed fishery. It is likely that coelacanths exist uncommonly along the offshore seamounts and banks of the western Indian Ocean, but this has not been confirmed due to the capture difficulties and the lack of a prolonged exploratory fishing effort. Their presence might most effectively be explored using shallow depth submersibles.”
The seasonality and lunar periodicity of coelacanth capture indicates that their behavior and/or presence in shallow water fluctuates. Presuming that Latimeria presence in shallow water is affected by rainfall-fed submarine aquifers, it seems likely that the fat-investment of the swimbladder is an adaptation which assists vertical migration. Dead, intact specimens are slightly denser than seawater. The high, extracellular lipid and wax ester content of the muscles compensates somewhat for the lack of swimbladder function (Nevenzel et. al. 1966). The fish is therefore slightly negatively "buoyant" (not unlike large groupers, cirrhitids, and blennioids), allowing it to perch on a reef platform and lunge short distances to capture prey items. Its body shape and fin size and location are adapted for such a feeding method. The inter-cranial mobility, subcephalic musculature, and jaw angle (Thomson 1966, 1970, 1973; Alexander 1973) also contribute to rapid prey capture and engulfment (McCosker, 1979).
The coelacanth eye is adapted to moderate depths in clear, tropical waters. The retina possesses numerous, densely-packed rods; cones (single type) are very rare and possess a single oil droplet (Ali and Anctil, 1976). The visual pigment maximum absorbance is at 473 nm (Dartnall, 1972). The large, nearly color-blind eye is therefore adapted to low light levels (indicative of a primarily nocturnal activity pattern?) and similar in habit and structure to elasmobranchs which occupy a similar habitat (Millot and Carasso, 1955). The relatively large eye of the embryos and juvenile specimen evidence an allometric growth (McAllister and Smith, 1978) which presumably would allow young fish to occupy the same photic horizon as adults (McCosker, 1979).
If the natural history of the living coelacanth is as I have inferred, then it is quite likely that Latimeria is amenable to aquarium captivity. Its lack of a functional swimbladder would allow its existence at ambient pressure and a minimal reduction in temperature and light level might be the only modifications necessary (McCosker, 1979).
I would like now to mention some general information about the Coelacanth (Quastenflosser in German) in German, which was published in the book "Riesenfische, Wale und Delphine" von J.R. Norman und F.C. Fraser (1963).
Die alte Gruppe der Crossopterygii, als seit dem Zeitalter der Dinosaurier, d.h. seit etwa 60 Millionen Jahren ausgestorben geltend, erregte die wissenschaftliche Welt durch ihr Wiederauferstehen vor der süd-afrikanischen Küste um die Weihnachtszeit des Jahres 1938. Ein einziges Exemplar wurde auf einer Tiefe von 40 Faden im Schleppnetz gefangen. Es war von leuchtend blauer Farbe und äußerst ölhaltig. Es wog 57,6 kg und war gerade 140 cm lang und sollte deshalb vielleicht nicht als "Riesenfisch" aufgeführt werden. Doch wurde nach zuverlässigen Berichten ein weiterer ganz ähnlicher, jedoch über 1,8 m langer Fisch bei Flut nahe East London angespült, jener Stadt, in deren Museum dies einzigartige lebende Fossil ausgestellt ist (Norman und Fraser 1963).
Latimeria ist ein verhältnismäßig großer, plumper Fisch. Die Kiefer sind mit Reihen kräftiger spitzer Zähne bewehrt. Die zweite Rücken-, die After- sowie die paarigen Flossen sitzen auf beschuppten muskulösen Stielen. Schwanzflosse aus je einem ziemlich langen oberen und unteren Flossensaum bestehend, der in der Mittellinie der körperachse durch einen kleineren stark abgerundeten Endlappen unterbrochen und überragt wird. Färbung im Leben metallisch graublau mit helleren grünlich-blauen Reflexen auf den Flossen. Auge grünlich-gelb (Norman und Fraser, 1963).
Erreicht eine Länge von mindestens 1,7 m und ein Gewicht von 78 kg. Der Quastenflosser ist offenbar ein vorwiegend nächtlicher Bodenfisch, der den Tag vielleicht in Höhlen oder Felsspalten verbringt. Die Fangplätze liegen, vom Erstfund abgesehen, sämtlich auf der relativ stark abfallenden Böschung um die Comoren auf Tiefen von 150-390 m und etwa 500-1000 m von der Küste entfernt. Als Nahrung wurden kleinere Fische festgestellt, doch waren die Mägen der meisten untersuchten Tiere leer (Norman und Fraser, 1963).
Die Männchen messen in der Regel nur 109-130 cm und sind mit Gewichten von 20-40 kg auch viel leichter als die größeren Weibchen.
Über die Fortpflanzung ist nichts bekannt.
Der Gattungsname Latimeria wurde dem Fisch zu Ehren der Kustodin des Museums von East London, Miss Courtenay-Latimer, erteilt, welche die Besonderheit dieses Fisches erkannte und Professor Smith von dem Fund verständigte. Der Artname chalumnae erinnert an den Fundort, da der Fisch vor der Mündung des Chalumna-Flusses gefangen wurde (Norman und Fraser, 1963). Ende. Al-Hamdu Lillahi Rabi Al-Alameen.
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