Second Group of Living Fossils Reported

Article excerpt

A second population of one of the most sought-after fish on the planet, the coelacanth, has turned up because a honeymooning reef ecologist got out of a taxi at the right moment.

Mark V. Erdmann, a University of California, Berkeley biologist working in Indonesia, spotted a dead coelacanth on a handcart as he and his bride arrived at a fish market a year ago. Another catch this July, as well as local lore, convinced Erdmann that the Indonesian island of Manado Tua has living fossils in its reefs. If genetic analysis and further exploring prove him right, Indonesian coelacanths will complement the only ones previously known, a group living in waters outside Africa's Comoro Archipelago, 10,000 kilometers west.

The notion that coelacanths survive in just two groups so far apart strikes Erdmann as unlikely, and he hopes for more discoveries. "This should be welcome news for coelacanth conservation," Erdmann and his colleagues write in the Sept. 24 Nature.

The news shouldn't be too welcome, though, cautions coauthor Roy L. Caldwell, also from Berkeley. Sightings have been so rare that he can't believe the fish is common. "The worst possible thing that could happen is if people make that assumption and the interest in protecting the Comoro population decreased," he says.

That's worrisome, agrees Hans Fricke, a coelacanth specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen, Germany. "I feel deep sadness for the Comorans," Fricke says. "They were very proud to be the only ones on Earth to have this fish."

Fricke takes seriously the evidence for a second coelacanth homeland. Neither storms nor currents could sweep the African fish as far as Indonesia, he says. …