The Coelacanth (Coelacanthiformes)


Photo Credit: David Leveille (Project Gombessa)

The Coelacanth is an ancient fish once thought extinct. There are only two remaining species of this genus around today. Morphological and DNA evidence suggests that coelacanths are more closely related to salamanders rather than to a guppy.


Coelacanths are a rather large fish with mature individuals being as long as 6 ft and weighing up to 200 lbs. If that made your mouth water, you’re not in luck. They are an oily and foul-tasting fish. Which is good for them as it is believed that they are probably endangered. It’s believed that they aren’t sexually mature until around 20 years of age and live to about 60 years old. That’s almost as long as many humans!


Coelacanths are cousins to the terrestrial lungfish, a fish that can breath air. Lungfish are considered to be a cousin to the ancestors of early tetrapods (four-footed fish-like ancestors). Coelacanths split from their lungfish cousins 100’s of millions of years ago. One line eventually gave rise to us, the other stayed in the sea.

Coelacanths have a unique set of fins which provide a clue to how early tetrapods may have been able to eventually leave the ocean for land. They have an amazing command of swim direction and stability in the water. This is due to the fact that every fin is attached to powerful muscles which can move independently. They even have a humerus bone.

Coelacanths are found primarily off the Eastern African coast. They were once thought extinct since the Cretaceous period but were rediscovered in 1938. Little is known about their global population sizes but where they are found, it is speculated that between 200 to 500 individuals populate particular areas. It is proposed however that >10,000 coelacanths exist globally.

Marine Biologist nerds everywhere gleefully celebrate when given the opportunity to swim near these ancient creatures who provide us all a peek into our early evolutionary lineage.



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