Latimeria and history repeating

This post is really an excuse to show off a photo of the rather nice coelacanth (Latimeria) we have on display at the IVPP. I rather like these giant lobe-finned fish and this one is both big and in good condition (well, was, before someone killed it and stuck in in a tank of preservative). From the point of view of evolutionary discussions however it has it’s own little role to play which is worth mentioning.

While I generally avoid creationism stuff on here (and after the comments that came last time, it seems like the right choice) there are a few more obvious non-sequiturs that hang around for ever and never seem to die that rather intrigue me. One is the concept that finding a living pterosaur or dinosaur would somehow disprove evolution or the fossil record as a whole. Obviously this would not. What is would mean is that we have a big gap in the fossil record and that somewhere, somehow, something clung onto life in a hidden corner of the world for a long time. Extinction still happens (you could find tens of thousands of supposedly extinct species but there would be hundreds of thousands still only known from the fossil record) and evolution still happens, so the point is moot.

Which of course is where the coelacanth comes in. Until its (re)discovery as a living animal, the group was though long extinct and known only from the fossil record. However, despite the fact that this story is very widely know, it’s pretty obvious that the whole edifice of evolutionary research and biological sciences did not come crashing down as a result of this find. Indeed, it allowed us to look at what changes had happened over the millennia separating the fossils and living specimens to see evolution in action. Why then people persist in thinking that finding  a living hadrosaur will kill evolution is beyond me. Not only would it not do this, but similar occurrences have already happened with no effect at all, so why would this be any different?

6 Responses to “Latimeria and history repeating”

  1. 1 Jules-Ange Infante 23/05/2010 at 9:11 am

    Actually, I would argue that everytime such a species is found it reinforces the whole edifice of paleontology rather than have no effect at all.

    It not only serves to underscore the fact that fossil records are incomplete because fossil creation and discovery are processes inherently random in nature. So when we don’t have a complete line of fossils representing the lineage of, say, pterosaurs, it doesn’t meant the just “jumped into existence”. It just means that opportunities for fossils to be generated and discovered were not that good.

    Even more importantly, when a living species is found that was thought dead for millions of years, and when it can be observed to be morphologically close to what was expected from paleontological examination of fossils, it reinforces all the interpretation methods that were used to reconstruct the living creature from the imprint of its skeleton in solid rock. It means that those prints on rocks are not “random patterns that happen to look like an animal skeleton”. There really are caused by the remains of creatures that once lived. And converting bones to rocks is not a rapid process.

    • 2 David Hone 23/05/2010 at 10:08 am

      Oh I agree, all this is correct and are good points. I was really thinking in terms of the ‘negative’ evidence that such a discovery supposedly provides. There is much positive information present in all these finds.

  2. 3 Darren Naish 24/05/2010 at 7:11 am

    >cough coelacanth cough<

  3. 5 randolf 29/06/2011 at 11:08 am

    hello, I need your help re: Latimeria, in order to refute a Creationists claim. They write that before the living Latimeria was found, it was believed that Latimeria had primitive lungs and even primitive ability to walk-crawl. the lung was then found to be just “fat”. while this is not such a big problem in my eyes, since we talk about the late 30’s, and mistakes are human, I would like to know if this is through. Do you know about it?

    • 6 David Hone 30/06/2011 at 12:19 am

      Well I’ve never heard of either of those before so I can’t really comment on them, sorry.

      One thing I would not though is that lots of fish have some kind of pseudo crawl that they do with their fins. The various lungfish (which are of course closely related to the coelocanth) do this too and the bones at the base of their fins probably help with this.

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