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A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth Paperback – February 6, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1938, an alert young South African museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer came upon a curious specimen in a fisherman's nets: a fish with "four limb-like fins and a strange little puppy dog tail," one that she thought resembled not a living being so much as a china ornament. When she could turn up no written descriptions of the find, she turned to other scientists for help, touching off a worldwide wave of interest in the creature that would come to be called the "coelacanth," long thought to be extinct, and now celebrated as one of the world's oldest species.

That interest took many forms, writes journalist Samantha Weinberg in her entertaining and instructive case study in scientific detective work. It spurred the development of new deep-sea craft to explore the farthest reaches of the ocean; it touched off more than one controversy over the coelacanth's lineage, and even over which nation claimed sovereignty over its oceanic haunts; and it launched or advanced the careers of dozens of researchers. The coelacanth continues to make news. In 1998, a young American scholar found a specimen in Indonesia, far from the western Indian Ocean waters where the coelacanth was thought to dwell. Although some scientists decried the discovery as a hoax at worst and an aberration at best, the find showed that the creature's range was widespread. It demonstrated, too, that international cooperation was necessary if the coelacanth were to be protected in the future, "continuing to exist," as Weinberg writes, "after this extraordinary duration of time." --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Scientists had believed that coelacanths, five-foot-long fish with surprisingly limblike fins, existed on earth for approximately 330 million years, from 400 million years ago until they went extinct about 70 million years ago. To the world's surprise, however, a live one was discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Here, British writer Weinberg presents a breezy, engaging account (previously published in the U.K.) of this "living fossil," from the time it was first described in fossil form by the great paleontologist Louis Agassiz in 1839, to its rediscovery 100 years later, to the present. Because coelacanths had been presumed extinct for so long, because modern individuals appear so little changed from their fossilized relatives and because morphologically they appear to be an evolutionary link between fish and reptiles, perhaps on the path leading to humans, they have a great deal to tell the scientific community. Weinberg, while not focusing on the science, provides enough information to give nontechnical readers a flavor for the biological issues surrounding this primitive group of fish. Otherwise, she features the people most involved with rediscovering and studying coelacanths, as well as the national and scientific rivalries arising from the fish's fame. Filled with b&w photos, this book should appeal not only to cryptozoologists and naturalists, but to anyone interested in the living evolutionary record. Agent, Gillon Aitken. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; First Edition edition (February 6, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060932856
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060932855
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #386,316 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Betty Alice Elliott on June 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"A Fish Caught in Time" is one of those slim books you pick up to read because it sounds somewhat interesting and will add to your volume of knowledge. How can any book about a fish first 'discovered' sixty years ago be really very interesting? Well, it is not only fascinating, it is the kind of book you keep putting down so you won't finish it too fast--this one you don't want to end. Samantha Weinberg chronicles the extremely unlikely sets of coincidences that first led the world to realize there was a living fossil--a fish that had been declared extinct 85 million years ago. The people involved become very human and likeable. Their tenacity and genius as well as their frailities are kindly portrayed. The politics which surrounded collection and examination of further specimens are discussed with tactful realism. The technical scientific study of this incredible fish is presented in an informative and lively way. The reader learns truly fascinating, mind-boggling facts about this fossil in ways that excite the mind. When details about skeletons and DNA hold the lay reader enthralled, it's clear Weinberg has written with passion about her subject. The Coelacanth went from being understood as an extinct fish found in many fossils to a fish, alive and well, with its organs, skeletal, blood and nerve systems providing incredible and valuable information about the development of the entire animal kingdom that probably couldn't be found any other way. Last but not least, A Fish Caught in Time, different than most 'nature' books does not leave the reader with a sad sense of helplessness. It leaves one with an uplifted sense of awe and with love for this wonderful fish of 100 million years ago.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Frank J. Leskovitz on April 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Samantha Weinberg has written a wonderful book outlining the history of the coelacanth. This "living fossil" fish, which predates the dinosaurs, was believed to have been extinct for millions of years until one was pulled from the sea in 1938. This incredible discovery has been referred to as the "number one zoological find of the twentieth century." The coelacanth, with it's primitive limbs, is a fascinating member of our evolutionary past. Much more than just a fish story, A FISH CAUGHT IN TIME tells an exciting tale of the many individuals involved in expanding our knowledge of the coelacanth--and hopefully preventing it's extinction as we enter the twenty-first century.
This is one of those special books that was hard to put down and ended far too soon!
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on July 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
What should you do if you are a fish thought to be extinct for millions of years, and suddenly humans discover you? You should really give some serious thought to finding a better place to hide. Ms. Weinberg tells the exciting story of the 1938 discovery of this rare fish, and the continual efforts to obtain more of them. You immediately develop an affectionate bond with this strange, yet beautiful, creature that hides in rocky caves far from the surface of the ocean. Its fins are almost like limbs; its tail is like that of no other fish; it likes to stand on its head; its babies are born live; it seems to use magnetic fields to find its prey; its brain is the size of a grape.
Understandably scientists wanted to see more of these fish on their dissection tables, and to date more than two hundred coelacanths have ended up there. Bounties were established for their capture, and the Japanese wanted to get a live specimen. Fortunately conservationists were reasonably quick in getting regulations established for old "four legs'" protection. The fish cannot live in captivity: It overheats in surface temperature water, and the bright sunlight blinds it. It's really sad when a scientist has to state that if the coelacanth prospers in other locations hopefully we won't find them.
I experienced some frustration in my reading. As a layman with a strong interest in science I came to tire of the extensive human biographies found in the book, and wanted to learn more about the fish itself. Fortunately there is a 9-page appendix in the back of the book that discusses the anatomy and physiology of the coelacanth. Still there could have been some more accessible science in this book. On the other hand "A Fish Caught In Time" is an important, necessary work.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Kevin T. McGuinness on January 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I had read an account a few years back about the initial discovery of the coelacanth off the coast of South Africa and the tracking down of its habitat to the waters around Madagascar. It captured my imagination.
It was great to find out that the story didn't end with the Madagascar discovery. Upon reading this book, I was thrilled to hear about the confirmation of coelacanths living off Indonesia. The theory put forth in the book that there might be populations in the Philippines or even off the Atlantic coast of the United States stirs the imagination as well.
The book is very easy to get thru. It gives you just the right amount of scientific information and includes more human elements, namely the stories of the people involved in discovering, studying and protecting the coelacanth.
Something like this definitely makes you wonder. I mean, if a fish that was thought to be extinct for millions of years escaped detection by humanity till the beginning of the twentieth century, what else might still be out there?
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