Indonesian Coelacanths

To the considerable surprise of Western scientists at least, a second population of coelacanths has been discovered off the coast of Indonesia, some seven thousand miles from their only previously known location near Madagascar. Of course, local people knew about them all along. And where was the first specimen of this new population found? In a case where history repeated itself, the first Indonesian specimen turned up in a fish market, as had the 1938 specimen.

Forty-six years after the “discover)’” of coelacanths in the Comoros Islands, the new population has now been identified by at least two specimens caught off North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Postdoctoral research fellow Mark Erdmann, on a honeymoon trip to the area in September 1997, investigated a coral-reef research site, when his wife, Arnaz Mehta, spotted a strange fish being wheeled in the fish market. Recognizing it as a coelacanth, they snapped a picture of it before it was sold. Assuming the fish to be already known from Indonesia, the two later posted the picture on their honeymoon website. As soon as he saw it, E. K. Balon of the University of Guelph, a longtime coelacanth specialist, advised Erdmann, a marine biologist attached to the University of California—Berkeley, to withdraw the picture and pursue further funding to confirm a second specimen.

The National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution were eager to help, but as a condition for funding they insisted on a news blackout. Consequently, the coelacanth research community was kept in the dark for another year.

When they saw the coelacanth, Mehta and Erdmann had been living for the past seven years in Indonesia, where Erdmann studies the health of Indonesia’s coral reefs. Mehta is a nature guide. They were at a traditional market when they made the discovery. Mehta gave this account to Loren Coleman:

I was the first to see a fish being wheeled by on a handcart. I could only see the head portion of the fish as it was being pushed away but it caught my attention as being something I didn’t recognize. I went out to take a closer look at it and, admittedly, I was at a loss to its identity. I called Mark over to see the fish and Mark immediately recognized it as a coelacanth. Mark said that he read all about the coelacanth as a boy and that it was only known from the Western Indian Ocean, but had not kept up with coelacanth news for over fifteen years and assumed that the fish must have since been discovered in other areas of the world. After all, how could we literally step out of a taxi and think that we have immediately stumbled on such a significant discovery!…

We turned the possibilities of keeping the fish over and over in our minds, but Mark had disappointing memories of going out of his way to preserve specimens that he thought were new or special only to find that all his trouble (and the life of an animal) were all for nothing.

So we opted to take a couple of quick photos instead and find out more about the distribution of the fish when we returned to the States. Furthermore, we rationalized that we would be living in Manado for two years and surely, we would find another coelacanth. That was a decision that Mark agonized over for the next ten months after he found out that no other coelacanths had been found within ten thousand kilometers [6,200 miles] off Manado.

Soon, Erdmann was able to use his grant money to return to Indonesia in search of further coelacanths. His team quickly set to work among the fishermen of the North Sulawesi region. He and his associates asked them if any had seen the fish before, duplicating the efforts J. L. B. Smith, a professor-turned-coelacanth-hunter, had used in uncovering the second specimen in 1952.

Erdmann’s investigation turned up reports of a big but rare fish, up to six feet long and very heavy. It was known locally as rajalaut, “king of the sea.” Finally, at sunrise on July 30, 1998, Om Lameh Sonathan and his crew of ten fishermen netting for deep-water shark off the young volcanic island of Manado Tua, caught and delivered a rajalaut to Erdmann. An attempt was made to keep the fish alive by dragging it through the water. Although nearly dead, the coelacanth remained alive long enough for Erdmann to film it swimming for three hours before freezing it for later analysis. This second specimen led to the press release of late 1998, and subsequent new worldwide attention.

Erdmann and his coauthors, Roy Caldwell and M. Kasim Moosa, reported on the remarkable discovery in the September 24, 1998, issue of the influential British journal Nature. They wrote that the coelacanths recently found in Indonesia apparently live in the same type of environment as those found in the Comoros, caves about six hundred feet deep along the steep sides of underwater volcanoes. They hope that many more colonies will be found now that scientists know where to look. The fish were probably “habitat specialists,” choosing young volcanic islands with steep sides full of crevices and caves, conditions that exist in both Manado Tua and the Comoros.

The new population of Indonesian coelacanths seems centered on the island of Manado Tua in North Sulawesi. Because of its beautiful coral reefs the island is a popular diving spot. North Sulawesi is some seven thousand miles from the Comoros with no apparent water current interactions. This population appears completely isolated from the Comoran coelacanths, whereas recent catches off Madagascar and East Africa have not been eliminated as possible strays or satellite colonies. The observed specimens appear identical to the Comoran coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, except that they are brown rather than blue and have gold flecks on their sides. During April 1999, news reports stated that early DNA tests had found the Indonesian coelacanths to be a separate species. But while Mark Erdmann notes that the fish is substantially genetically divergent from Comoran specimens, enough so to raise the question of separate species status, its naming as Latimeria menadoensis may be premature.


The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark

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