A specimen of a rare and unusual fish species has for the first time been found off the Kenyan coast. The fish is a coelacanth, and it was captured earlier this year in the nets of a commercial trawler operating off the coastal resort of Malindi, but news of its existence only surfaced on Sunday. The fish, 1.7 metres long and weighing 77 kg, has now been delivered to the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, after lying for months in the Mombasa-based fishery company’s cold storage depot.
Until 1938, coelacanths were known only from ancient fossils - some dating back 360 million years. Their sudden disappearance from the fossil record about 80 million years ago suggested that coelacanths had been extinct since the time of the dinosaurs. The first living coelacanth was discovered off the east coast of South Africa near East London in 1938. That discovery is still widely considered to be one of the greatest zoological finds of the twentieth century. Described as "living fossils", coelacanths have changed very little over the past 360 million years. They differ markedly from all other living fishes in having fleshy appendages, or lobes, at the bases of their paired fins, which move in a manner similar to arms and legs.
The coelacanth’s 80 million-year absence from the fossil record has been ascribed to changes in the fish’s habitat. Fossil coelacanths, at their most abundant about 240-million years ago, seem to have been much more widespread and to have lived in environments conducive to fossilisation.
Modern coelacanths, by contrast, are found predominantly in, and around caves and rocky overhangs in marine reefs skirting volcanic islands, which are poor environments for fossilisation. Even so, the Kenyan discovery may indicate that coelacanths are still more widely distributed today than has previously been assumed. It is hoped that it will become possible to put the fish on display at the museum.
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