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A Strange Fish Indeed
The Discovery of a Living Fossil
Robert H. Grant
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.
|Keywords:||Coelacanth; Latimeria chalumnae; homology; homologous structures; eusthenopteron; tetrapod; fish; evolution; extinction; ichthyology; J.L.B. Smith; Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer; East London Museum; South Africa|
|Topical Area:||History of science, Scientific method, Women in science|
|Educational Level:||High school, Undergraduate lower division|
|Subject Headings:||Evolutionary Biology Ecology Paleontology Zoology|
|Copyright:||Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.|
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VideosThe following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.
Animated Life: The Living Fossil Fish
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
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.