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The Coelacanth: An Odd Fish


Eric Ribbens
Department of Biological Sciences
Western Illinois University
Robert H. Grant
Editorial Department
The Scientist


This "clicker case" is a redesign of a case, also in our collection, by Robert H. Grant titled "A Strange Fish Indeed: The 'Discovery' of a Living Fossil." The case follows the story of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and her discovery of the coelacanth, a fish of considerable evolutionary interest. It uses the story as a springboard to explore evolutionary concepts and the scientific method. It has been reformatted to use student personal response systems (“clickers”) and a PowerPoint presentation (~4.2MB), and further emphasizes the role of Ms. Courtenay-Latimer. The case is designed for large introductory biology courses.


  • Explore the excitement of discovering a new species.
  • Present the concept of "living fossils."
  • Encourage students to think about what should be done next.


Coelacanth; Latimeria chalumnae; missing link; phylogeny; derived characteristic; evolution; extinction; fossil record; lobe-finned; ray-finned; fish; ichthyology; J.L.B. Smith; Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer; East London Museum; South Africa

Topical Areas

History of science, Scientific method, Women in science

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division


PDF, PowerPoint

Type / Methods

Clicker, Interrupted



Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Evolutionary Biology  |   Paleontology  |   Zoology  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Answer Key

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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.