DAVID CLARK POWELL
Coelecanth Symposium, February, 2002
The following is a description of David Powell's trip to Japan during February, 2002.
The Coelacanth Symposium I attended at the Fukushima Aquarium in Japan was excellent. It was hosted by the director, Mr. Abe and there were twelve presenters, including myself and over 400 attendees. The non-Japanese there were two from the South African Institute of Aquatic Bio-Diversity, one from Indonesia, two from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an evolutionary biologist from UC San Diego and one from Florida, (a deep diving collector using the new technology of mixed gas diving). The one scheduled participant from the Comoros did not make it. We saw some great video of living coelacanths taken by divers off South Africa, and by submersibles off Indonesia and the Comoros. The purpose of the symposium was to start a seven year project culminating in a living coelacanth in an aquarium, hopefully at Fukushima.
The new aquarium in Fukushima has some outstanding exhibits (and some so-so ones) all within an architecturally highly innovative glass building. See http://www.marine.fks.ed.jp/english/english.html. After "Enter" click on Menu and Structure to see more. They have a section on the evolution of life in the sea with fossils, models plus living primitive species. Very well done.
After the meetings our hosts took us sightseeing up into the snow covered mountains where we stayed overnight in a tradition Japanese Inn. My old Western bones can't take that eating on the floor but the big communal bath was fun! We visited a feudal lord's castle and a shogun warrior's home.
We returned to Fukushima and boarded the Shinkansen, Japan's beautiful, high speed bullet train to Tokyo. Unfortunately, the rather hectic schedule plus getting chilled in the snow gave me a really bad cold the day before flying home. Not a good way to travel.
If you interested in learning more about the coelacanth go to the Dinofish web site: http://www.dinofish.com/
Following is a newspaper article Dr. McCosker sent to me yesterday about the coelacanth.
Oldest fish gets new research 300 million years old: Ancient coelacanth 'makes us question all the science that has gone before'* (* I wouldn't go that far! --DCP)
Corinna Schuler National Post
JOHANNESBURG - A team of international scientists will soon converge in South Africa to mount a massive deep-sea study of "the living fossil"-- a monstrous four-finned fish that has apparently avoided the pressures of evolution for more than 300 million years.
Imagine a prehistoric beast of human-sized proportion that fertilizes eggs the size of tennis balls, has bony scales, a prickly spine and four fins that look like legs. Scientists believe the coelacanth (pronounced seal-uh-cant) has looked just like that ever since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, refusing to adapt or die.
"This is the world's slowest-evolving fish. How can a creature exist for that long without changing?" asks biologist Tony Ribbink of the South African Institute of Aquatic Bio-Diversity, which will lead the study.
"It makes us question all the science that has gone before. This animal should be extinct. I want to know if the enigma can be explained."
Researchers from Germany, Singapore, the United States and at least five African countries will be using a submersible vessel in a joint effort to unlock the secret of the coelacanth.
This swimming beast has been the subject of scientific fascination since 1938, when a South African fishing trawler accidentally snagged one in its net and handed it to a local museum for inspection.
It was like discovering a living dinosaur. Until then, scientists thought the fish had been extinct for 70 million years and it was hailed in newspaper headlines around the world as the greatest zoological find of the century.
Scientists offered financial rewards to anyone who found another such creature. Divers died trying, fisherman trolled the seas and researchers embarked on costly expeditions up the African coast.
But it was another 14 years before the next coelacanth was discovered, in the Indian Ocean, off the Comoros islands.
Though the species has since been located in the waters off four other countries -- Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya and Indonesia -- it has proven difficult to study because coelacanths usually skulk in underwater caves up to 600 metres below the ocean's surface.
The fish is sensitive to temperature changes and can not be brought to the surface.
Researchers received new hope, however, in October, 2000, when a 31-year-old lawyer spotted something strange while on a recreational dive at the St. Lucia marine reserve on South Africa's east coast.
"I saw this eye reflecting towards me and that made me curious," Pieter Venter said in an interview yesterday. "I approached ... and underneath a rock overhang, I saw this fish about two metres long. It was so weird, like from another world."
After a few stunned moments, Mr. Venter realized it was a coelacanth. He and two friends were 104 metres below the surface -- an extraordinary depth for divers, but the shallowest at which the fish has ever been sighted.
Mr. Venter and his diving buddies were thrilled, but none of them had a camera. "It was like seeing a UFO without being able to take a photograph," he said.
The group returned with a team of six others the following month, descended to 115 metres and, with just three minutes remaining before they would have to ascend, they spotted three more coelacanths. This time, the divers captured the living fossil on film.
But the great find came at a terrible price.
One diver passed out and another, Dennis Harding, tried to rescue the sick man by carrying him back up to the surface. He ascended too quickly, and 34-year-old Mr. Harding died of a cerebral embolism on board the dive boat.
Despite the tragedy, the coelacanth discovery was huge news in South Africa. The government immediately put the area off limits to other divers while excited researchers spent the next year trying to raise money and necessary permissions for a study.
Several plans fell apart before the Ministry of Science and Technology announced last week it would provide about $2-million for an international research project led by Mr. Ribbink. The German government is supplying a two-person submersible vessel, and other countries are lining up to get involved.
An initial research ship is going out "any day now" to map more than a dozen canyons on the ocean floor. Once that is done, scientists will plot a path for the submersible vessel and use it to establish just how many coelacanths are living in South African waters. They hope to study the fish in its natural environment, examine its DNA and, eventually, use it to attract tourists.
"The educational aspect is very important," says Mr. Ribbink. "We can use this fish as an icon of bio-diversity and encourage kids to get interested in science.
"If we find a lot of them down there, that opens up the potential for tourist submersibles. It would be like an underwater Land Rover."