Tuesday, May 25, 2004

everyone evolved except me!

Months ago, I promised you this fish story, if you would be patient while I complained about my sex life. Finally I deliver.

Just outside the Toliara (“tule-yar”) airport there is a hand-painted sign. You see it as the rattly Citroen or Renault taxi putters out of the lot, and you have plenty of time to look at it because the taxi craps out right there and the driver and his friend have to get out and push, or pull some wires out from under the hood and reknot them, or at the very least indicate to you that the original estimate for the fare has gone up because they need money for petrol. Welcome to Madagascar.

The sign is peeling under Toliara's ferocious sun but still legible. At the top, we see depicted the classic evolutionary progression--a formless sea creature makes it onto land, develops legs, becomes a monkey, becomes a man. Underneath this familiar image, we see a small fish become a large fish. A large, incredibly ugly fish. The legend (in French) reads, "everyone evolved except me!"--a sentiment which in my Lariam-weakened state I found incredibly plaintive and heartbreaking.

That fish is a coelacanth--yes, Shriekback recorded an instrumental song by that name--older, I think, than even the ancient sharks. The coelacanth is a live breeder possessed of a fin on every flat surface, heavy, and apparently bright blue while alive and at the depths where it prefers to live.

Up until fairly recently it was assumed that the coelacanth was 66 million years extinct. Then in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the curator of a tiny museum in South Africa, made a trip out to the docks to see if any of her fisherman friends had found anything interesting to put in the museum. She had a good relationship with them, and they would often save any creatures they didn't recognize for her to take a look at.

Which is how she found the first modern coelacanth known to science. I would say the first coelacanth known to modern people, but that would be untrue; it turned out that fishermen had caught a few others, but discarded them because they were too oily to taste good. As it happens the coelacanth is a very oily, fatty fish and it has all sorts of goo in unusual places. The rostrol organ, for example, is a jelly-filled space in the fish's snout that detects electrical fields. No other animal is known to have such a thing, but would you want to eat it? It’s not tasty jelly, apparently.

That first untasted modern coelacanth, unfortunately, did not survive to serve science as well as it might have. Courtenay-Latimer had to get a taxi to haul her find back to the museum (a full-size coelacanth can weigh ninety pounds.) Once there, she and her assistant wrapped the fish in formalin-soaked cloth, as they didn't have enough formalin to immerse the thing. Then she tried to reach an eminent fish scientist in another part of the country for help identifying the fish, sending along drawings and descriptions of what she saw. Unfortunately because it was so close to Christmas, he didn't get back to her until after she had had the fish taxidermied (it's hot in South Africa in December, and this was one big stinky fish) and its guts discarded, a scientific disaster.

Anyway. The stuffed fish was paraded about, Courtenay-Latimer became something of a hero and the fish was named after her (Latimeria chalumnae), and soon enough everyone was trying to catch their own coelacanth to sell for lots of money to museums and scientific organizations. It got so bad that there was an outcry from those concerned that the coelacanth would be overfished. It's a deep swimmer, and nobody knows how many there are; people were rightly concerned that the fish would be made truly extinct in the name of science.

Now they've found coelacanths in more places--the waters around southern Africa, the Indian Ocean, and most recently Indonesia--and there are people who have devoted all of their energies to building submersibles specifically to go to coelacanth depth and see these odd lobed fish alive and on the move, although it's not much of a move. The fish just sort of hang in the water. If you make it to the end of this post, there's a link to a great site with Virtual Coelacanth Webcam where you can see for yourself.

Toliara has a coelacanth, one of the first ones found. In order to see it, you have to go out to a tiny museum near the ocean. You can't really see the ocean from much of Toliara--it's mostly mudflats and mangroves, baking under the sun and used as a communal toilet. Up until the day Slice and I went to see the coelacanth, nothing much exciting had happened in Toliara except that I was going steadily insane from the Lariam, which I suppose was exciting in its own way. The room I expected to rent after he left was fitted out with a shower cold enough to stun an ox in one corner and a gecko pale as skim milk that would watch me from the ceiling, its tail hanging down slightly. “You’ll have a friend here,” Slice kept telling me. Across the hall a French tourist and his rented non-gecko friend were doing their damnedest to break the bed. Alone after Slice left, I would sit on my bed, surrounded by a mosquito tent that I still need to retrieve from him, surviving on French bread spread thickly with Nutella and talking to the gecko.

But while he was still there, and we were still trying to figure out what two tourists could do in Toliara after riding in a pousse-pousse that had collapsed under their combined weight and visiting the Alliance Francaise to stare longingly at their tiny stash of English-language magazines, we were approached by a woman on the street. She turned out to be the curator of Toliara’s marine museum, and she knew she had the only bona fide tourist attraction in town; we were an easy sell. So we walked the dusty streets back to the museum, our savior pushing her bicycle, children yelling Bonjour vazaha! Donnez-moi! as we passed. “Vazaha” is Malagasy for “white person”. It’s the structural equivalent of “gwilo” or “gaijin”.

The museum turned out to be tiny, and further dwarfed by the bleached skeleton of a small whale mounted on concrete supports outside. The museum is primarily intended for the use of scientists, so the inside was crowded with shelves and shelves of jars and jars, all neatly labeled and full of mysterious things that had bleached to the same tinge of ivory in their formaldehyde bath. Some of the things were completely obscured by their labels, and I strained to see what sorts of creatures they might have been as the curator, anxious to close up shop, hustled us past. She did stop briefly to show off a collection of colorful boxes that had contained Madagascarene food products from the sea--who knew the Malagasy provided so much dried fish to the world? As she gestured proudly, I noticed a stuffed bird on another shelf. The eye that faced into the room had been replaced with a yellow-striped marble.

But little fish, dried or floating, were not the object of our quest. After steering us through the labyrinth of narrow aisles and spooky specimens, out guide led us into the inner sanctum, a small windowless room in the center of the building.

And there it was, hanging in a flattish glass tank; grey in death, a veritable Panzer tank of a fish. Some of the fins looked a little nibbled-at, and the eyes were flat, but you got the sense of it, a little tingle of the amazement that Courtenay-Latimer must have felt. Look at that. Too many fins, and so large!

Chacun a évolué excepté moi!

Now go see one yourself.