Episode 002: The Mokele Mbembe and the Coelacanth

People have been searching for the so-called African brontosaurus, mokele mbembe, for a century without any luck. No one was looking for the extinct coelacanth until a museum curator saw one in a pile of recently caught fish. In this episode of Strange Animals Podcast we discuss the hunt for both creatures. (re-recorded episode)

Recommended reading: Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero.

The beautiful coelacanth:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It looks like when I upload a new version of an old episode, it doesn’t spam everyone’s feed! So I’m going to try and get the first dozen or so episodes re-recorded and uploaded as quickly as possible. Here’s the new version of episode two, where I sound like a human being and not a robot reading out loud.

This week’s episode is about a couple of so-called living fossils, one that possibly never existed and one that exists like WHOA.

Legends of “lost worlds” full of dinosaurs have been around ever since people recognized that fossilized bones belonged to once-living animals. Early science fiction like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World featured explorers encountering living prehistoric creatures.

Europeans looked at a map of the world, saw that Africa was still largely unexplored—by other Europeans, anyway—and suggested maybe dinosaurs were living somewhere on that vast continent. After all, Africa was home to some of the world’s most amazing known animals.

In 1909, animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck published a book called Beasts and Men, where he shared a friend-of-a-friend story about a monster in Central Africa. It wasn’t a very satisfying story, frankly. Hagenbeck heard from one of his employees and also from a big-game hunter that “the natives” reported a “half-elephant, half-dragon” monster living in the swamps. No doubt with visions of million-dollar brontosaurus sales in his future, Hagenbeck sent an expedition to look for the monster. They didn’t find anything.

Nevertheless, the press took the story and ran with it. People were dinosaur-crazy then like nothing else, and headlines like “Brontosaurus Still Lives” whipped the public into a frenzy of excitement. The only papers that didn’t go over the top about live dinosaurs in Africa were those published in Africa, which were more skeptical.

Hagenbeck’s story placed the monster in Rhodesia, which is now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Europeans set off on expeditions to the area, found nothing, and assumed they just weren’t looking in the right place. Monsters from native folklore were cited as proof of dinosaurs just down the river or in the next lake. Bullheaded or over-enthusiastic Europeans cherry-picked information from the Africans they interviewed. They believed details about native monsters as though they were real sightings and ignored it whenever an interviewee said, “That’s an imaginary animal. It’s not real. We just tell that story to children.”

In 1919, London newspapers reported a couple of monster stories, one from a Mr. Lepage in the Belgian Congo, one from a Mr. Gapelle in “the interior of the Congo.” Both stories are about an improbable animal with a humped back, a horn on its nose, scales, and a kangaroo-like tail. But the stories fell apart very soon when people who knew David Le Page pointed out he was a known practical joker. Le Page was the source of both stories, the first under his own name, the second under an anagram of his last name. Gapelle is roughly Le Page backwards. He’d made them both up.

The stories were nonsense, but they kept being repeated. They also shifted focus from Rhodesia to the Congo. Expeditions started focusing on that area, still searching for the African brontosaurus. This went on for decades. It’s still going on, and no one has ever found anything.

At some point, the name mokele mbembe got attached to the rumors of brontosaurus-like dinosaurs living in Africa. The name is supposedly from the Lingala language and means “one who stops the flow of rivers.” Lingala is a Creole language based on Bantu, which is used as a lingua franca in the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Gradually the notion that the mokele-mbembe is an actual brontosaurus faded away. We know more about sauropods these days. We know they’re not going to be hiding in heavy swamps, lakes, or jungles. They were animals of open forests and scrubland where there was solid footing. So some people now think the mokele-mbembe is a smaller, sauropod-like creature that lives in or near water, maybe in underwater burrows, and is generally described as a plant-eater that is peaceful unless attacked, at which point it turns deadly.

Despite the lack of dead animals or skins, pictures, footprints, or any other proof whatsoever, it’s oddly plausible that a large unknown water reptile is living deep in the Congo. It’s such a big place! The animals we do know about are amazing! And in 2006 and 2007, researchers found a population of 100,000 previously unknown gorillas not that far from Lake Tele. What else might be hidden in the swamps and forests surrounding the lake?

But. People have been searching for the mokele-mbembe for so long that it’s actually become a revenue stream for villages around Lake Tele, where expeditions now focus although it’s 1200 miles from the site of Hagenbeck’s 1909 report. Cryptozoological expeditions hire the same paid guides and translators year after year, and the guides are like travel guides anywhere. They make sure the travelers go away with the remarkable stories they came to hear, and they make sure that the expedition leaves the villages richer. One Japanese expedition in 1981 got stranded by their guides after refusing to pay what the guides thought they should.

It’s nonsense for explorers to say breathlessly, “The natives couldn’t possibly have known what a diplodocus was but pointed to its picture!” when dozens of previous explorers have likely talked to the same individuals. And when explorers stray from Lake Tele and into areas where expeditions haven’t yet traveled, the villagers don’t report any sightings of dinosaur-like monsters.

So far, we don’t have any good reports of the mokele-mbembe. No physical proof of any kind, no genuine local stories. It’s not looking good for our living dinosaur.

And here’s where the whole legend of the mokele-mbembe veers off the rails of maybe and crashes into the chasm of what the heck. The most fervent believers in this animal, the ones who mount repeated expeditions, have a massive and bizarre axe to grind.

Young Earth creationists believe the Earth was only created about 6,000 years ago. Not only do they think that it’s perfectly plausible to have dinosaurs still around after so little time, they firmly believe that if they can find proof of a living dinosaur and present it to science, probably going “AHA! What do you think of THAT?”, somehow the entire theory of evolution will crumble. Scientists will weep and realize how wrong they all were, and probably the creationists can teach the dinosaur tricks and walk it on a leash. I don’t know.

It just proves they don’t have the slightest idea of what evolution actually is, but instead of spending fifteen minutes with a high school biology textbook and an open mind, they keep spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to look for the mokele-mbembe. To SHOW THEM ALL.

That’s not to say that everyone who hunts for the mokele-mbembe is a creationist. Heck, if anyone wants to bring me along on their non-missionary expedition, I’ll jump at the chance. I’d love to visit a beautiful part of the world and meet people whose culture is very different from my own. But I wouldn’t expect to see a dinosaur.

The coelacanth is another animal that creationists believe disproves evolution. It’s also another one that’s been called a living fossil in the media. In December 1938, a museum curator in South Africa named Marjorie Courtenay Lattimer got a message from a friend of hers, a fisherman named Hendrick Goosen, who had just arrived with a new catch. Lattimer was on the lookout for specimens for her tiny museum, and Goosen was happy to let her have anything interesting. Lattimer went down to the dock, partly to look at the catch, but mostly to wish Goosen and his crew a merry Christmas. Then she noticed THE FISH.

It was five feet long, or 1.5 meters, blueish with shimmery silvery markings, with strange lobed fins and scales like armored plates. She described it as the most beautiful fish she had ever seen. She didn’t know what it was, but she wanted it. I’m like that too, but usually with craft supplies, not dead fish.

She took the fish back to the museum in a taxi—after an argument with the taxi driver. The fish did not smell very good and it was the size of a human being, after all. Once at the museum, Lattimer went through her reference books to identify the fish.

Imagine it. She’s flipped through a couple of books but nothing looks even remotely like her fish, the beautiful weird smelly one. Then she turns a page and there’s a picture of the fish like the one the taxi driver objected to…but that fish is extinct. It’s been extinct for some 66 million years. But it’s also a very recently alive fish resting on ice in the back of her museum.

Lattimer sketched the fish and sent the drawing and a description to a professor at Rhodes University, J.L.B. Smith. But Smith was on Christmas break and didn’t get her message until January 3. In the meantime, Lattimer’s museum director told her the fish was a grouper and not worth the ice it was lying on.

But Marjorie, she loved that fish. She wasn’t going to cut it up for bait. But December is the middle of summer in South Africa, so to keep it from rotting away, she had it mounted.

Then Smith sent her a near-hysterical cable that read, “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS.” Oops.

This is perhaps a lesson for all of us. Once I missed the opportunity to see a rare snow goose that had stopped on our campus pond over winter break. If only I’d checked my work email while I was off, I could have seen that life bird. The agony I felt at missing it was probably only a shadow of what Professor Smith felt at losing the important innards of a living fossil, though. Also, I saw a whole bunch of snow geese in December of 2018.

On February 16, 1939, Smith showed up at the museum and immediately identified the fish as a coelacanth. The story made international news. When the museum put the fish on display for one day only, 20,000 people showed up to see it.

Smith got a little obsessed about finding another coelacanth. He offered huge rewards for a specimen. But it wasn’t until December of 1952 that a pair of local fishermen on the island of Anjuan, about halfway being Tanzania and Madagascar, turned up with a fish they called the gombessa. It was a second coelacanth.

Everyone was happy. The fishermen got a huge reward—a hundred British pounds—and Smith had an intact coelacanth. He actually cried when he saw it. I didn’t cry when I saw those snow geese but I did make a horrible excited squeaking noise.

Most people have heard of the coelacanth because its discovery is such a great story. But why is the fish such a big deal?

The coelacanth isn’t just a fish that was supposed to be extinct and was discovered alive and well, although that’s pretty awesome. It’s a strange fish, more closely related to mammals reptiles than it is to ordinary ray-finned fish. The only living fish even slightly like it is the lungfish, and the lungfish is such a weird animal in its own right that it’s going to get its own episode one of these days. That episode is #55.

While the coelacanth is unique in a lot of ways, it’s those lobed fins that are really exciting. It’s not a stretch to say their paired fins look like nubby legs with frills instead of digits. Until DNA sequencing in 2013, many researchers thought the coelacanth was a sort of missing link between water-dwelling animals and those that first developed the ability to walk on land. As it happens, the lungfish turns out to be closer to that stage than the coelacanth, and both the lungfish and the coelacanth had already split off from the shared ancestor of marine and terrestrial organisms when they evolved around 400 million years ago. But for scientists in the mid-20th century, studying a fish that looked like it had little legs must have been electrifying.

But this fish story isn’t over yet. In 1997, a marine biologist on honeymoon in Indonesia found a coelacanth in a local market. And it was a different species of coelacanth. Can you imagine a better wedding gift?

Coelacanths are placid fish who do a lot of drifting, although their eight marvelous fins make them very maneuverable. They stay close to the coast and prefer rocky areas. They especially love underwater caves. They hunt for smaller fish and cephalopods like squid at night and rest in caves or hidden among rocks during the day. Sometimes sharks eat them, but for the most part coelacanths lead comfortable lives, floating around eating stuff. Sometimes they float around tail up or even upside down because they just don’t care.

Since the discovery of living coelacanths, more fossil coelacanths have been found. A 2015 paper in the Zoological Paper of the Linnaean Society describes over 30 complete specimens of 360 million years old coelacanths. The fossils were discovered about 60 miles from the mouth of the Chalumna River in South Africa, where Marjorie Lattimer found the first living coelacanth known to science. All the fossils are of juveniles, which were apparently living in a shallow, weedy bay that acted as a nursery. Living coelacanths give birth to live young, which is rare in fish, but researchers don’t know yet if young coelacanths grow up in similarly protected nurseries.

Another fossil species of coelacanth was described in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and this one was a surprise to researchers. All the coelacanths discovered up till then, living or extinct, looked pretty much alike. Scientists have made a not unreasonable assumption that the extinct coelacanths lived much like modern coelacanths do—you know, drifting around, eating stuff, and not worrying about anything much except sharks. Then several coelacanth fossils were discovered in British Colombia, Canada, and this new species shows every sign of being a swift, vicious predator. It’s so different from other coelacanths that it’s been given its own family. It’s called Rebellatrix, which is just so awesome I can’t stand it. Rebellatrix was about three feet long, or 91 cm, and had a fork-like tail similar to a tuna’s, which allowed it to swim fast. It lived 240 million years ago, only ten million years after an extinction event at the end of the Permian. Researchers think Rebellatrix may have evolved to fill a niche left by extinct predatory fishes.

But coelacanths these days are happy enough doing the drifting thing. Sometimes they get caught by accident by night fishermen, who either throw the fish back or sell them to museums. Because here’s the best thing of all about the coelacanth: they taste horrible. Not only that, their flesh is slimy. It’s full of oil and urea. If you eat a coelacanth, you won’t die, but you’ll end up with terrible diarrhea.

So far, living coelacanths have mostly been found off the coast of Africa, but they’re much more widely spread in the fossil record. Rumors of coelacanths in other places, like the Gulf of Mexico or around Easter Island, keep popping up. Maybe one day another population of these awesome fish will be discovered.

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