A Strange Fish Indeed
The Discovery of a Living Fossil
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.
KeywordsCoelacanth; Latimeria chalumnae; homology; homologous structures; eusthenopteron; tetrapod; fish; evolution; extinction; ichthyology; J.L.B. Smith; Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer; East London Museum; South Africa
Topical AreasHistory of science, Scientific method, Women in science
Educational LevelHigh school, Undergraduate lower division
Type / MethodsDiscussion, Interrupted
Subject HeadingsEvolutionary Biology | Ecology | Paleontology | Zoology |
Case teaching notes are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.
Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.
Answer keys for the cases in our collection are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.
The 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.