A Scaly Ancestor

A Latimeria, one of our scaly ancestors, swimming in the ocean.
Toothy, dark blue, 5 feet in length, covered in scales, and even with legs. Have you guessed who this is? None other than our shared great-grandmother! Of course, coelacanths, or the genus Latimeria, are not our direct ancestors, but they are still relatives of beings that first left the seas 385 million years ago and became four-legged terrestrial animals, from which we sprung. And these relatives are still alive today!


On December 22, 1938, floating off the South African coast in the Indian Ocean, fishermen from the Irvin & Jones Company caught an unknown creature. It weighed 188.5 lbs, was about 5 ft in length, dark blue in color, and unabashedly chomped its jaws. This was not just any fish — it had scales, fins, and…limbs. Or, more precisely, rudiments thereof. Moreover, there were seven of them: two on the back, three on the belly, and another pair on the head.

It should be noted that the local population occasionally caught these creatures and had even come up with a name for them, gombes­sa, which can be translated as “bitter fish.” The residents knew that it was nearly inedible (it was consumed due to the belief that its meat helped to cope with malaria symptoms), although it was possible to make something like sandpaper from their extremely strong and bristly scales. So for the local fishermen, perhaps, it was not such a curiosity; nevertheless, they called the curator of the local East London Museum, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. The museum had a standing arrangement with the fishermen, requesting that they report all unusual findings.

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