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A Strange Fish Indeed

The Discovery of a Living Fossil

Robert H. Grant
Editorial Department
The Scientist


Through a series of fictionalized diary entries, this case recounts the 1939 discovery by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer (and identification by J.L.B. Smith) of a living coelacanth, a fish believed to be extinct for over 70 million years. Developed for use in a freshman biology course as an introduction to the nature and methods of scientific inquiry, the case could also be modified for use in a number of upper-level biology courses such as ichthyology, evolutionary biology, and conservation ecology.


  • To expose students to an incident of scientific discovery.
  • To introduce students to methods of formal scientific inquiry.
  • To initiate discussion concerning communication within the scientific community.
  • To illustrate evolutionary relationships between classes of animals.
  • To understand the concept of homology and to cite examples of homologous structures.


Coelacanth; Latimeria chalumnae; homology; homologous structures; eusthenopteron; tetrapod; fish; evolution; extinction; ichthyology; J.L.B. Smith; Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer; East London Museum; South Africa

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type Methods

Discussion, Interrupted



Subject Headings

Evolutionary Biology Ecology Paleontology Zoology

Date Posted


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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  • Animated Life: The Living Fossil Fish hhmi/
    This animated short film tells the engaging tale of the discovery of the coelacanth. In 1938, South African museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer came across a strange blue fin poking out of a pile of fish. With its fleshy, lobed fins and its tough armored scales, the coelacanth did not look like any other fish that exists today. The coelacanth belongs to a lineage that has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, earning it the description of a "living fossil." Running time: 7:18 min. Produced by: HHMI BioInteractive, 2016.
  • Click and Learn: Great Transitions Interactive – The Origin of Tetrapods hhmi/
    The fossils of transitional creatures were key evidence for Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but none had been found when he published On the Origin of Species. Now, there are many examples of such fossils, which clearly show that big evolutionary leaps consist of many smaller steps. This self-paced "Click and Learn" activity explores transitional forms with features of both fish and tetrapods, and shows the progression of anatomical changes from reconstructed fossil skeletons. Produced by: HHMI BioInteractive, 2015.


Shannon McNew
Department of Biology
Southeast Missouri State University
Cape Girardeau, MO
I used this case in two sections of my non-major university course titled "Biology for Living." This was my first attempt at using or incorporating a case study into my courses. The students seemed very receptive to the idea. After I gave them part one of the study, they asked lots of questions about the fish. It got them very interested. Most (if not all) had never heard of the coelacanth. I added to the pictures by pulling up photos of coelacanths on the computer and projecting them for the students to see during each part. I followed up the case with a homework assignment. They had to report on recent research or happenings with regard to the coelacanth fish.