Coelacanths are an order of ray-finned fish known mostly from fossils. They first evolved in the Devonian and were common and diverse from the latter part of the Devonian to the end of the Cretaceous. Until 1938, they were believed to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, along with the dinosaurs. Two living species are now known.
In 1938, one was caught by a South African fishing boat. Luckily, the captain of that fishing boat (Hendrik Goosen) was a friend of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a local museum curator. He set aside the fish and told her that he had an unusual specimen. Courtenay-Latimer did not recognize the fish; since her ichthyologist friend J. L. B. Smith was out of town, she had a taxidermist preserve the specimen. When Smith arrived, he identified it as a coelacanth and named the new species Latimeria chalumnae after Courtenay-Latimer and its discovery in the ocean near the mouth of the Chalumna River.
No other specimens came to the attention of scientists for 14 years, despite a search. Finally another was discovered in the Comoros. It became clear that fishermen there knew the species, and did not consider it of any value (since it tasted disgusting).
In the 1990s, a new species of coelacanth was discovered in Indonesia, initially in a fish market; in 1998, it was named Latimeria menadoensis.
Both species of coelacanth are rather large fish; adults usually exceed 1 meter. The better-known West Indian Ocean species (Latimeria chalumnae) can reach 2 meters. The West Indian Ocean coelacanths are bluish; the Indonesian ones are grayish-brown.
Coelacanths are best known as a living fossil and cryptid: surviving members of an evolutionary lineage once thought long-extinct. As such, they are mentioned in almost every "lost world" story written since their discovery, to support the plausibility of other prehistoric species surviving unknown.
Game and Story Use
- As mentioned above, they are always useful to mention in a lost world-genre plot.
- In a more pulp-style game, perhaps the southern African coast and Indonesia are linked by a vast cavern system of subterranean seas swarming with prehistoric creatures - and perhaps, deep under the African continent, air-filled caverns where dinosaurs and the like live on.
- In a campaign with time travel, the coelacanth populations could have been introduced to our time via time travel from the Cretaceous. If the PCs are near one of those locations when the coelacanths appear, they might be drawn back to the age of dinosaurs…