More coelacanth discovered off SA coast

Scientists have discovered two more coelacanth off South Africa’s east coast, bringing to 21 the number of live specimens of the exceptionally rare “four-legged” fish found along the country’s coast in recent years.

A team of researchers from South Africa and Germany has been studying the population first spotted in 2000 at Sodwana Bay near the country’s border with Mozambique and about which very little is known except that it dates back about 400-million years.

Underwater dive expeditions led by German scientist Hans Fricke of the Max Planck Institute use a state-of-the-art submersible that can reach a depth of 400m to search for, study and document the movements and habits of the large, slow-moving and docile fish.

Zoologist Karen Hissmann on Monday said the latest find was made in two different caves about 45km south of the area.

“Apparently they are more scattered than expected. With these two new coelacanth, the population is up to 21,” she said.

The habitat of the coelacanth as a species might even be wider than expected, extending all along the east African coast, she said. In 1991 a coelacanth was caught off the coast of Mozambique and two more were found off the coast of Tanzania.

The waters around the Indian Ocean Island of the Comores is believed to be inhabited by about 600 of the species, she said.

“The next expedition is planned for the South Africans, but for the Germans there is still a question mark because the financing is not clear,” she said.

To date scientists have already obtained scale samples from some of the predatory fish that hide out in deep-sea caves, but have also been found at shallow depths in the South Africa, will a view to studying its genetic makeup.

Their work—centred around gathering ecological data, including the size of the population, its diet, breeding habits and the features of its preferred habitat—is funded under a coelacanth research project initiated by the South African government.

The German Ministry for Science and Technology and several international partners have also backed the research financially.—Sapa-DPA


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