Monday 16 September 2019

Prehistoric Monster of the Deep

CAPE ARGUS – 1939, February 20

What is regarded as one of the most sensational scientific discoveries of recent times has been made at East London, where a “prehistoric” fish has been caught in a trawl net. Dr. JLB Smith, of Rhodes University, who has examined the specimen, states that it belongs to an order thought to have been extinct 50 000 000 years ago. Dr. L Gill, Director of the South African Museum in Cape Town, has been consulted about the discovery by Dr. Smith. From the details already in his possession he thinks it should prove one of the most exciting scientific discoveries ever made. The fish was trawled in about 40 fathoms between Gulu and Chalumna by one of Irvin & Johnson’s trawlers. The catch of half a ton of redfish and “kobs” and a ton and a half of sharks included a great primitive looking fish, five feet in length, steel blue in colour with big dark blue eyes. It weighed 127lb.

On reaching port the captain of the trawler, Capt. HP Goosen, asked Miss M Courtnay Latimer, curator of the East London Museum, to see the fish. She realised it was one of a very primitive species.
When Mr. R Center, a taxidermist, skinned the fish he found a cartilage structure in place of the usual body skeleton. Miss Latimer immediately communicated with Dr. JLB Smith of Rhodes University College and ichthyologist of the Albany Museum, who was on holiday in the Knysna District. Dr. Smith came to East London and after an intensive investigation he pronounced the catch a sensational scientific discovery.
When interviewed, Dr. Smith produced a picture of the fossilised remains of a fish belonging to the order crossopterygil which was stated to have become extinct 50 millions years ago. The resemblance between picture and the specimen was most striking.
“This is one of the most valuable zoological specimens in the world today and its scientific value is incalculable,” said Dr. Smith.
He added that the specimen so closely resembled Mezozoic fossilized forms that there was no question as to its taxonomic position. The structure of the jaws of the specimen is very different from that of the majority of modern fishes. The fins, which are known as lobate or paddle-shaped fins, are strangely limb-like. The large scales, too, differ widely from the ordinary in that they are covered with an enamel-like substance known as ganoin, which is found only in the most primitive forms. The order crossopterygil first appeared in the carboniferous age about 250 million years ago. Scientists have regarded these principal crossopterygil fishes as having been extinct for 50 million years. Numerous fossilized remains, chiefly in the northern hemisphere, testify to an abundance of these fishes at earlier periods, but in the last 50 million years all trace has been lost.
Dr. Smith said that the specimen possessed features showing that it was tending to develop and adapt itself to more modern conditions. The mouth is proportionately large and has even plates of sharp, catlike teeth. Just above and behind the eyes is an opening known as the spiracle which is characteristic of these primitive forms.
Dr. Leonard Gill, Director of the South African Museum, told a representative of The Argus today that for some time past he has been in communication with Dr. Smith about the prehistoric fish discovery at East London. A few weeks ago, Dr. Smith first consulted him and Dr. KH Barnard, the fish expert attached to the South African Museum, sending particulars of the catch.
“We are eagerly waiting to see a photograph of the fish,” said Dr. Gill. “If it turns out to be what we expect, then it can only be described as a most extraordinary occurrence – as one of the most exciting scientific discoveries ever made.”
Dr. Gill said it was not possible to give a scientific name to the fish, except as a member of the order crossopterygil, thought to have been extinct for many millions of years. Fish of this type had to live in fairly deep water with a rocky bottom, but it was astonishing that none had ever been caught by trawlers before.
Dr. Gill thought it a pity the fish had been skinned instead of being preserved whole in spirits. Fortunately, sufficient data was collected and the time to ensure the positive identification and classification of the fish.
If the sensational nature of the find had been fully realized earlier on, the fish would undoubtedly have been preserved whole. – S.A. Press Association

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