Magazine article ROM Magazine

The Ultimate Lazarus Taxon: This Living Fossil Has Ended Up on the Endangered Species List-But Not Because It's Sought to Pair with Chips

Magazine article ROM Magazine

The Ultimate Lazarus Taxon: This Living Fossil Has Ended Up on the Endangered Species List-But Not Because It's Sought to Pair with Chips

Article excerpt

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What's blue, has three tails, lives in deep-sea volcanic caves, and gives you diarrhea? Why yes, it's the gentle coelacanth, nocturnal bottom-feeder and relic of the Cretaceous period. The ultimate Lazarus taxon, it was believed to have been extinct for 65 million years until one was discovered off South Africa in 1938--the zoological find of the century, according to many biologists. The fact that fishermen in the Comoro Islands had always known about the fish, which they call mame or gombessa, didn't count, of course. What mattered was that a living Latimeria chalumnae was new to Western science.

Once its identity had been confirmed, someone was bound to ask, "Can you eat it?" Gombessa apparently means "taboo" in the Swahili-based language of the Comoros, or more exactly in this case, "taboo as food." The coelacanth continuously exudes mucus and a particularly malodorous oil that fills its hollow bones and permeates its flesh. People who have been curious enough or hungry enough to taste it are quickly stricken with a devastating case of the runs.

I can think of no better protection for the creature. There is a small but wealthy group of people in the world who have an unhealthy obsession for trophy gastronomy. They seek out and eat the weirdest and rarest plants and animals, greedily collecting culinary experiences from monkey brains to mammoth meat thawed from the Siberian permafrost. They think nothing of feasting on fugu, a fish that is fatally toxic if carelessly prepared. They may laugh at death, but they mortally dread the indignity of a rapid dash to the loo.

In 1997, a second living species of coelacanth, L. menadoensis, was found in Indonesia (these ones are brown) and there are reports of others being caught off the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, but the fish is still very high on the endangered list. …

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