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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae

When it was first discovered in 1938, the coelacanth was nicknamed “old four legs” because its pectoral fins had strange, fleshy, limblike bases.

The only other primitive group to have a similar arrangement are the freshwater lungfish. It is from fish like these that the first four-legged land animals are thought to have developed. This coelacanth’s tail has an extra small lobe in the middle, and its body is covered in heavy scales, which are made up of four layers of bone and a hard mineral material.

In life, these shimmer an iridescent blue with white flecks. Coelacanths live in deep water on steep, rocky reefs and, so far, have been found at only a few sites off the south and east coasts of Africa and the west coast of Madagascar. By using small submersibles to study these fish, scientists have discovered that they retreat into caves at night.

When out searching for food, coelacanths drift along in ocean currents or scull slowly with their fins. Having located a fish or squid, the coelacanth then uses its powerful tail to propel itself forward so that it can seize its prey. The coelacanth is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. International trade in this species is banned.

Fossil Evidence for Coelacanths

Coelacanths were thought to have become extinct about 65 million years ago. When a live coelacanth was caught in 1938, comparing it with fossil coelacanths enabled scientists to confirm its identity. A living specimen of a fossil species had been found.

Coelacanthzoom image
  • Order Coelacanthiformes
  • Length Up to 6 ft (2 m)
  • Weight Up to 210 lb (95 kg)
  • Depth 490–2,300 ft (150–700 m)
  • Distribution Western Indian Ocean
Coelacanth habitat mapzoom image