To See a Coelacanth

This week’s post reflects on some time I am spending with Prosanta Chakrabarty. Prosanta, myself, and a research team are currently in rural, coastal Tanzania sampling Western Indian Ocean fish. I’ve had some time to talk to Prosanta about his work. Prosanta is an Associate Professor and Curator of Fishes at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science.
photo: fish exhibit

A fish exhibit in the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

The Museum Collection
The Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science contained about 250,000 specimens prior to Prosanta arriving in 2008. Since that time, the specimen collection has grown to around 400,000— the vast majority of which he and his research team has collected (with a few donations). In addition to lots of whole fish, the collection is the fastest growing tissue collection in the country, and one of the fastest the world. Tissues are collected for DNA, another other applications.

 

Prosanta’s Work
In addition to all the collecting, curating, mentoring students, and other tasks, Prosanta has named 13 new fish species. Four species have been types of cavefishes, and other species including cichlids and ponyfish. He has also named 10 genera and resurrected one family.

Prosanta Chakrabarty, Ph.D.

Seeing a Coelacanth
Because we are currently sampling the Western Indian Ocean—home to the original discovery of the coelacanth (pronounced seel-a-canth) —I asked Prosanta what would happen if we incidentally captured one. (For clarification, we are sampling small, estuarine fishes in very shallow water, while coelacanths are found many miles offshore in deep waters—so we aren’t likely to even be near one!) If we were to encounter a coelacanth, we would first need to contact the Tanzanian government and Fisheries Ministry. They need to be aware of all coelacanth captures. We might ask for a tissue sample (like a fin clip for DNA), but the fish would be taken from us and likely deposited into a freezer in Tanzania. If we were interested in eventually possessing the fish—such as for the Museum of Natural Science—we would need to request a CITES permit. This permitting and subsequent government requests can take a while. We may also have an option to buy the coelacanth, although Prosanta warns that they should not be purchased for much money as that can create a market for coelacanths and subsequently increase fishing pressure on them. All-in-all it is near impossible that we would encounter a coelacanth while here, but it’s fun to think about. For now, we are mainly wading through 2 feet of muck to try and catch mudskippers.

Coelacanth and Arnaz Mehta Erdmann, at about 50 foot depth. Photograph by Mark V. Erdmann, July 1998. (Smithsonian Institution)

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