There is a story that is passed around in the scientific world of a discovery so improbable that it took ten years to prove the entire ordeal hadn’t been fictionalized by the scientist involved. This is the story of the discovery of the Coelacanth. It took place the day before Christmas Eve in the year 1938, on the southern tip of South Africa just past where the mouth of the Chalumna river opened into the Indian Ocean. Hendrick Goosen, captain of a trawling vessel that had spent much of day pulling fish out of the ocean in massive nets, pulled into harbor and called Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London Museum, down to the docks. Over the years the two of them had developed a friendship, and Goosen would frequently bring her cast-offs from their catches, sharks and other less than edible fish that would normally would have been thrown back into the sea.
It is the improbability of this story that has captured so many people’s interests, if Goosen had not thought of Latimer the central object of our story would have been cast back into the sea and possibly not discovered again for decades. If Latimer had given in to temptation and not responded to Goosen’s call, instead staying at home with Christmas preparations, she would never have recognized the significance of the blue scales hiding among the ocean refuse that Goosen had called her to examine. The East London Museum, where Latimer worked, was a small natural history museum that primarily dealt in taxidermies. When Latimer first arrived at the dock she was all but ready to declare Goosen’s pile of cast-offs the refuse that they were, until she lifted the tail of a shark and saw unusually blue fins. Upon further examination, the strong pectoral lobe-fins and, as she later described, “puppy dog tail” were practically unmistakable to Latimer: she was looking at a fossil fish. Not only a fossil fish, but a fish that rightfully should have been fully calcified over sixty-five million years prior that had been living up until a couple of hours before their fateful meeting.
This, dear readers, was none other than the Coelacanth. The story continues, and it is a long story that spans over ten years and is full of adventure, heartache, and inspiration for hundreds of future scientists and ichthyologists. However, during this break, you are no doubt wondering: why are the Ace of Geeks taking the time to break down the history of the discovery of the Coelacanth during Pokemon Week, of all times? It is, naturally, a tie-in. While talking about one of the most significant zoological discoveries of the twentieth century it is almost impossible, as a Pokemon fan, to not want to talk about one of the most underrated and underrepresented Pokemon in the entire Pokedex. During Advance Generation, in the Hoenn Pokedex, a throwaway reference to the coelacanth was slipped in and lamentably rarely touched on later in much of Pokemon Media: the Longevity Pokemon, Relicanth.
For now we will pause our story, leaving Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer standing on the docks, deliberating over what exactly to do with a six-foot long expired fish that was already beginning to emit a rank odor on the start of a long holiday weekend, and move on to discuss that inspiringly obvious tribute. Relicanth is a dual-type Pokemon, belonging to both Water Type and Rock Type, a fitting categorization considering that coelacanths are both fish, but up until 1938 were entirely known only as fossils dating back to the KT Mass Extinction 65 million years ago. The name “Relicanth,” is a portmanteau of the words “Relic” and “Coelacanth,” while the Pokemon’s Japanese name, Glanth or Jiransu, is a combination of “Ji,” meaning “old man,” and “Coelacanth.”
There are four Pokedex entries describing Relicanth from the Advanced Generation of Pokemon Games, Sapphire’s entry is, “Relicanth is a rare species that was discovered in deep-sea explorations. This Pokemon’s body withstands the enormous water pressure of the ocean depths. It’s body is covered in tough scales that are like craggy rocks,” while in Ruby this description is expanded in a slightly different manner, “Relicanth is a Pokemon species that existed for a hundred million years without ever changing its form. This ancient Pokemon feeds on microscopic organisms with its toothless mouth.” Finally, the last piece of the puzzle comes into play in the Emerald Pokedex entry, “A Pokemon that was once believed to have been extinct. The species has not changed its form for 100 million years. It walks on the sea floor using its pectoral fins.”
These Pokedex entries combine actual information about the Coelacanth with both theoretical information, facts about other fossil fish, and fantasy. This combination of fact and fiction makes Relicanth a suitably fascinating Pokemon: one that is both rooted in reality (albeit a mysterious and fantastical one) while simultaneously keeping one fin in the realm of fantasy. While the Coelacanth was not discovered in deep-sea explorations, for many years it was theorized that the reason why coelacanths had flown under the radar of ichthyology for so many years was that it existed primarily in the darkest depths of the Indian Ocean, low enough that the technology of the time could not reach it, and that the fish we left Latimer on the docks with was an aberration that had somehow ventured to a shallow enough depth to be picked up in a trawler net. Many years later it was discovered that coelacanths, nocturnal by nature, spent the daylight hours congregated in caves that were not all that far off of the shore, in relatively shallow water, and this hiding tactic had kept them from scientific knowledge for millennia. Additionally, prior to the discovery of the Coelacanth’s natural habitat in the early 1990’s, it was believed that coelacanth’s likely used their muscular pectoral fins to “walk” along the bottom of the ocean, and it was this mechanism that eventually led to the evolution of tetrapods, though at this time a huge amount of observation of coelacanths in the wild has been conducted and this theory has never been genuinely documented. While Coelacanths are primarily carnivorous, other fossil fish were not, and they used unusual hard plates in their mouths to scrape algae and microorganisms off of rocks underwater, that is where the original writer of the Pokedex entry pilfered the idea of Relicanth feeding on microscopic organisms.
For now, let’s leave Relicanth in Pokedex before we use HM08 Dive to venture under the surface of the ocean in Hoenn to find one for ourselves. As it stands, we have so rudely left Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer behind on the docks of East London, and it is high time we revisit her.
Courtenay-Latimer was not an ichthyologist, she had a small amount of knowledge of fossil fish from a primary school teacher who happened to be the daughter of a then-prominent paleontologist. However, she had previously been in contact with a prominent South African ichthyologist who was at the time living in Cape Town. Frantically, the Coelacanth specimen was left at the museum where the sweltering heat of a South African summer was already beginning to cause the dead fish to rot. Courtenay-Latimer sent a telegram to JLB Smith with a description of the fish in question. This missive would, in the end, not reach Smith until after Christmas, and by then it would be too late. Unsure of what to do while waiting desperately for communication, Courtenay-Latimer did the only thing she could think of doing in her experience: she brought the Coelacanth to a local taxidermist who frequently supplied his work to the museum, and had the Coelacanth stuffed.
In later interviews JLB Smith would frequently describe this act as the single greatest loss of scientific knowledge of the 20th century. By discarding the soft tissues of the Coelacanth specimen, Courtenay-Latimer discarded the very means with which it might be proven. When JLB Smith finally reached her, the parts were long gone and the fish was preparing to be displayed. The quest for a second specimen became Smith’s life for the intervening ten years. Fliers were distributed throughout South and East Africa, while the original specimen, which Smith had named Latimeria chalumnae (for Ms. Courtenay-Latimer and the Chalumna river from which the fish was drawn), drew enormous crowds to the tiny East London Museum. The mystery of the fishy find captured the public’s imagination, though many scientific experts decried the fish as a sophisticated forgery. It had been only five years since the Piltdown Man had been proven to be the same, and many scientists were not willing to be accused of having made the same mistake.
In 1952 Smith’s efforts proved at last fruitful, when a friend, Captain EE Hunt, who had been distributing Smith’s fliers in the Comoros was tipped by locals that he may have discovered the breeding grounds of the elusive fish. It was a matter of days before Hunt telegraphed Smith, in a message that read:
HAVE SPECIMEN COELACANTH FIVE FEET TREATED FORMALIN STOP ABSENCE SMITH ADVISE OR SEND PLANE REPLY–HUNT DZAOUDZI COMORES
The second Coelcanth was found, and the adventure that Smith embarked upon to retrieve it is one that has gone down in legend. It involved commandeering a government plane, flying over French-occupied sky, and eventually making it just in time for a tearful reunion with Smith’s life’s work. It is not worth trying to give the adventure justice, however we will borrow an excerpt from Smith’s memoirs on the subject, “Old Fourlegs.” This broadcast was first sent over the National Network of South Africa about 10 pm on December 29th, 1952. As a result of nation-wide requests, it was repeated the following day and was also sent out over the British Broadcasting System and in the USA. Translated into many different languages, at least parts of it were broadcast all over the world.
“It is my astounding privilege to announce to the world the discovery of a second Coelacanth. This all started fourteen years ago–no, of course I am wrong, it really started 300 million years ago. For that is the time that scientists estimate as the first appearance of the Coelacanth fishes on Earth–it would take too long to tell you how this estimate is made, but that figure has been arrived at after long study by some of the best brains of mankind.” Smith goes on to describe his adventure, to weeping beside the body of the second specimen of a modern Coelacanth, after more than a decade of being declared a crackpot by much of the scientific world.
It is because of this period of time that the Coelacanth moved on to capture the imagination of the world. It is because Smith continued in his uphill battle to prove that all along he had been right, because he surmounted the challenge above all odds. The story of the discovery of the Coelacanth is not just one of scientific significance, but cultural and inspirational as well: it is the story of one person overcoming all odds to succeed in their life’s mission.
For those wishing to fill in the gaps in the story that I have left, I recommend “Old Fourlegs” by JLB Smith, or for more modern reading “A Fish Out of Time,” by Samantha Weinberg.
In the end, after all of the adventure the Coelacanth has led, it inspired a simple tribute in Pokemon. Relicanth was quietly added to the game, going skipped by many fans as being impossibly hard to find even after using HM08 Dive in the correct locations. While Relicanth or Wailord are required to catch the legendary Pokemon Rayquaza, many players aimed for the comparatively easier to capture and raise Wailord, and skipped Relicanth entirely. In the Pokemon Advanced Generation anime series, Relicanth made a handful of insignificant appearances: beginning in the episode “A Ruin with a View,” and also in the opening credits, briefly. Relicanth shows up as a background Pokemon in several episodes of the anime featuring underwater antics, and has a slightly more significant role in “The Relicanth Really Can!” However, no character in the anime ever keeps a Relicanth as a Pokemon, despite the fact that by all appearances a Relicanth would have paired magnificently with Brock, especially being a dual Rock-type, Brock’s speciality.
Perhaps in the future Relicanth can be given a story that is comparatively as inspirational as the story of the Coelacanth. Or, more likely, Relicanth will continue to fade into Pokemon obscurity as a forgotten Pokemon of one of the less popular generations of the game.
One can only hope that in a few years time perhaps we will be given a worthy tribute.