Episode 132: Paleontological Frauds

Ever heard of the Piltdown Man? What about Missourium or Archaeoraptor? They’re all frauds! Let’s learn about them and more this week.

Further reading:

The Chimeric Missourium and Hydrarchos

Investigation of a claim of a late-surviving pterosaur and exposure of a taxidermic hoax: the case of Cornelius Meyer’s dragon

Missourium was literally an extra mastodon:

Hydrarchos (left) was a lot more, um, exciting than its fossil donors, six Basilosauruses (right):

Piltdown man’s suspicious skull:

A lot of people were excited about Archaeoraptor:

Not a pterosaur:

Show transcript:

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

Last week we learned about some mistakes paleontologists made while working out what an extinct animal looked like using only a few fossilized bones. Mistakes are a normal part of the scientific method, no matter how silly they seem once we know more about the animal. But this week we’re going to look at some frauds and hoaxes in the paleontology world.

We really need to start with a man named Albert Koch. He was from Germany but moved to the United States in 1835, and was something of a cut-rate PT Barnum. He called himself Dr. Koch although he hadn’t earned a doctorate. A lot of the so-called curiosities he displayed were fakes.

Back in the mid-19th century, fossils had only recently been recognized as being from animals that lived millions of years before. People were still getting their heads around that concept, and around the idea that animal species could even go extinct. Then the fossils of huge animals started to be discovered—and not just discovered, but displayed in museums where the public could go look at them. Naturally they were big hits.

Sometimes these fossil exhibits weren’t free. For example, the mounted fossil skeleton of a mastodon was exhibited by the naturalist Charles Peale starting in 1802—one of the first fossil exhibits open to the public. Peale and his workers had mounted the skeleton to seem even larger than it really was by putting wooden discs between some of the bones. But the exhibit was primarily meant to educate, not just bring in money. It cost 50 cents to see the mastodon and lots of people wanted to. These days Peale’s mastodon is on display in Germany, without the wooden discs.

Albert Koch knew about Peale’s mastodon, and more to the point he knew how much money Peale had made off his mastodon. Koch wanted one for himself.

In 1840 he heard about a farmer in Missouri who had dug up some huge bones. Koch bought the bones and assembled them into a mastodon. But Koch wasn’t a paleontologist, he didn’t care about educating the public, and when he looked at those fossils, he just saw dollar signs. And he had ended up with bones from more than one mastodon, so, you know, he used them all. And he added wooden discs between the bones to make the animal bigger. A lot bigger. Between the wooden discs and the extra bones, Koch’s skeleton was twice the size of a real mastodon. Plus, he turned the tusks around so that they pointed upward, either because he didn’t know any better or because he thought that looked more exciting.

He called his mastodon Missourium and displayed it at his exhibit hall in St. Louis, Missouri later in 1840. It was a hit, and in 1841 he decided he’d make more money if he took Missourium on the road. He packed the massive skeleton up, sold his exhibit hall, and went on tour with just the mastodon.

Paleontologists spoke out against Koch’s Missourium as being unscientific, but that only gave him free publicity. People thronged to his exhibit for the next two years, until 1843 when he sold it to the British Museum. Needless to say, the experts at the British Museum promptly disassembled Missourium so they could study the fossils properly before remounting them into a mastodon that didn’t contain any extra ribs and vertebrae. Also, they put the tusks on the right way up.

But Koch wasn’t done riding roughshod over paleontology. To learn about what he did next, we have to learn about an animal called Basilosaurus.

Despite its name, Basilosaurus isn’t a dinosaur or even a reptile. It’s a mammal—specifically a whale, although it didn’t look like any whale alive today. It probably grew up to 70 feet long, or over 21 meters, with long jaws full of massive teeth—more like a crocodile or mosasaur than a whale. It had short flipper-like front legs that still had an elbow joint. Modern whales don’t have elbows. It also had little nubby hind legs, but the legs were far too small to support its weight on land. It probably mostly lived at or near the surface of the ocean since its vertebrae were large, hollow, and filled with fluid, which would have made Basilosaurus buoyant. It wouldn’t have been able to dive much at all as a result. It ate sharks and fish as well as smaller whale relatives.

Basilosaurus went extinct around 34 million years ago. Modern whales aren’t related to it very closely, although modern whales did share an ancestor with Basilosaurus. But Basilosaurus was a common animal and its fossils are relatively common as a result. They were so common, in fact, that they were sometimes used as house supports in parts of the American South.

In 1835 a British naturalist named Richard Harlan examined some fossils found in Alabama and decided it was a marine reptile, which he named Basilosaurus, which means king lizard. The mistake was corrected soon after when another paleontologist determined that the animal was a whale-like mammal, but it was too late to change the name due to taxonomic rules in place to minimize confusion. That’s why Basilosaurus is sometimes called Zeuglodon, since that was the name everyone wanted as a replacement for Basilosaurus.

In 1845, Albert Koch got hold of a lot of Basilosaurus fossils and decided this was his next big thing. And again, he didn’t care what Basilosaurus was or what it was called, he just wanted that moolah.

He constructed a mounted skeleton with the Basilosaurus fossils. But just as he did with his mastodon fossils, he didn’t arrange them as they appeared in life. He constructed a sea serpent that was 114 feet long, or almost 35 meters, and contained bones from six Basilosauruses, as well as some ammonite shells to bulk it out even more. He named it Hydrarchos and exhibited it first in New York City, then went on tour throughout the United States and Europe. It was even more popular than Missourium. Heck, I would have paid to see it.

Koch sold Hydrarchos to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who exhibited it in the Royal Anatomical Museum in Berlin even though the paleontologists there really, really didn’t want it. Kock promptly bought more Basilosaurus bones and built a new fake, a mere 96 feet long this time, or 29 meters. He toured with it and sold it to another flim-flam artist in Chicago, who exhibited it until 1871, when the great Chicago fire destroyed it and most of the rest of Chicago.

Koch wasn’t the only person putting together real bones to make a fake animal back then, but at least he did it for the money. Other fakes were more insidious because we aren’t even sure why the hoaxer did it. That’s the case with the so-called Piltdown Man.

This is how the story goes. A man called Charles Dawson said that a worker at a gravel pit in Piltdown had given him a piece of skull in 1908. Dawson searched the pit and found more pieces, which he gave to a geologist at the British Museum, Arthur Woodward. Woodward and Dawson both returned to the gravel pit in 1912, where they found more pieces of the skull and part of a jawbone. Woodward reconstructed the skull from the pieces and reported that the ape in question must be a so-called missing link between humans and apes.

Just going to mention here that if anyone refers to a fossil as a missing link, you should be suspicious that maybe they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, or that the fossil is a fake.

Not everyone agreed with the reconstruction. In 1913, Woodward, Dawson, and a geologist and priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin returned to the gravel pit. Teilhard found an ape-like canine tooth that fit the jaw. But the tooth raised even more controversy, leading to the loss of friendships and colleagues splitting into camps for and against the Piltdown fossil. Teilhard de Chardin washed his hands of the whole thing and moved to France, and later helped discover Homo erectus, one of our direct ancestors.

Piltdown Man, of course, was a fake. Some people had already suspected it was a fake in 1912, and through the years afterwards people repeatedly examined the bones and kept pointing out that it was a fake. Now, of course, it’s easy for researchers to see that the jaw and teeth are from an orangutan while the skull is from a human. But for a long time, no one was sure who was behind the hoax. Was it Dawson, Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin, or all of them together? Or did someone else plant the fakes for those people to find?

In 2008, a team of experts decided to examine the fossil and the circumstances surrounding its so-called discovery. It took them eight years. They determined that the orangutan teeth were all from the same animal while the pieces of skull came from at least two different people and were possibly several hundred years old. The jaw and skull pieces had been treated with putty, paint, and stain to make them look fossilized, with some carving to make the bones match up better. The hoaxer had even crammed pebbles into the natural hollow places inside the bones, then puttied them over, presumably to make the bones weigh more and therefore feel more like fossils.

All these methods were the work of a single person, and experts have seen that person’s work before. Charles Dawson was an amateur geologist, historian, and archaeologist who “discovered” a lot of things, almost all of which have been proven to be hoaxes. But the Piltdown man hoax was the one that got him into the history books, even if only as a cheater.

So why did Dawson do it? It’s possible he wanted Britain to be home to a human ancestor more impressive than Homo heidelbergensis, which was discovered in Germany in 1907 and which was probably the common ancestor of humans and Neandertals. More likely, he just wanted to be part of the excitement of a big discovery, one which would bring him the respect of the professional scientists he envied. His other hoaxes had brought him a certain amount of fame and weren’t discovered during his lifetime, so he just kept making them.

You’d think the days of faked fossils were behind us now that paleontology is so much more sophisticated. But fake fossils are actually more of a problem now than ever, mostly because fossils can be worth so much money. Usually the fakes are obvious to experts, but sometimes they’re much more sophisticated and can fool paleontologists for at least a short time. And that brings us to Archaeoraptor.

In 1999, National Geographic announced the discovery of a feathered dinosaur fossil from China, which was a mixture of elements seen in both dinosaurs and birds. National Geographic called it a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

Yep, another missing link.

Archaeoraptor looked like a small dinosaur but with feather impressions. This doesn’t sound weird to us now, but in 1999 it was shocking. Dinosaurs with feathers? Who ever heard of such a thing! Supposedly, the farmer who found the fossil had cemented the broken pieces together as best he could before selling it to a dealer. The fossil ended up in the United States where it was bought in early 1999 by The Dinosaur Museum in Utah for $80,000.

The National Geographic Society was interested in publishing an article about it in the magazine after the official description appeared in Nature. But Nature rejected the description. The paleontologists tried the journal Science next but again, Science rejected it. By then, other paleontologists who had examined the fossil reported that it wasn’t one fossilized animal but pieces from at least three different animals glued together to look like one. Albert Koche would be proud.

But National Geographic decided not to pull the article. It appeared in the November 1999 issue and the fossil itself was put on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, a paleontologist named Xu Xing who’d seen the Archaeoraptor fossil thought it looked really familiar. He asked around in the area of China where Archaeoraptor was supposedly found, and eventually discovered the fossil of a small dinosaur called dromaeosaur. The tail of Archaeoraptor matched the tail of the Dromaeosaur fossil exactly—like exactly, right down to a yellow ochre stain in the same place. This doesn’t mean it was a fake or a copy, but that the two pieces had once been joined. Quite often fossils leave impressions on both sides of a piece of rock, which are called the slab and counterslab. Once Xing’s information got out, people started calling the fossil the Piltdown bird.

Remember last week when an extinct peccary tooth was misidentified as an ape tooth? People who didn’t believe evolution was real claimed that that one mistake proved they were right and all of science was wrong wrong wrong. Well, the same argument is going on today with people who still don’t believe evolution is real. For some reason they think that because Archaeoraptor was a hoax, evolution is somehow also a hoax—even though we now have plenty of perfectly genuine feathered dinosaur fossils that show how a branch of dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.

There are a lot of hoaxed fossils coming from China, which has some of the world’s most amazing fossil beds and some of the most amazingly well preserved fossils in the world. But because the people finding them are often desperately poor farmers, it’s common for fossils to be sold to dealers for resale. The dealers prepare the fossils and sometimes, to improve the resale value, they add details that aren’t really there to make the fossils seem more valuable. Even worse, the preparation by non-experts and those added details often destroy parts of the fossil that are then lost to science forever. And because the fossils are dug up by non-experts, paleontologists usually don’t know exactly where the fossils were found, which means they can’t properly estimate the fossil’s age and other important information.

Let’s finish with a very old hoax that was started for the best of reasons but took some unusual twists and turns. Way back in the late 17th century, the countryside near Rome in Italy kept getting flooded by rivers. Rumor had it that a dragon-like monster was responsible, that when it moved around too much in the river where it lived, the river overflowed its banks like water out of an overfull bathtub. In actuality the area is in a natural floodplain so of course it was going to flood periodically, but that didn’t make it any easier for the people who lived there.

A Dutch engineer, architect, and engraver named Cornelius Meyer had a solution, though, involving levees to make the River Tiber more navigable and less prone to flooding. He started the project around 1690 but had trouble with his local workers. They expected to come across the dragon at any moment, which made them reluctant to get too near the river.

So Meyer decided to show them that the local dragon was dead. In 1691 he “found” its remains and mounted them to put on display. The workers were satisfied and got to work building the levees that did exactly what Meyer promised, reducing flooding and saving many lives. No one knows what happened to Meyer’s dragon, but we have an engraving he made of it in 1696. You can see it in the show notes. It shows a partially skeletal monster with hind legs, bat-like wings, a long tail, and horns on its skeletal head.

Centuries later, in 1998 and again in 2006, two men saw the engraving reprinted in a book about dragons published in 1979 and decided it was a depiction of a recently killed pterosaur. Wait, what? Pterosaurs disappear from the fossil record at the same time as non-avian dinosaurs, about 66 million years ago. Why would anyone believe Meyer’s dragon was a pterosaur? It didn’t even look like one.

The two men were part of a group called the young-earth creationists, who believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old. In order to shoehorn the entire 4 ½ billion years of earth’s actual history into only 6,000 years, they claim that rocks only take a few years to form and that dinosaurs and other extinct animals either still survive today in remote areas or survived until modern times. I shouldn’t have to point out that their ideas make no sense when you understand geologic processes and other fields like cosmology, the study of the entire universe and how planets form. Young-earth creationists are always on the lookout for anything that fits their theories, like so-called living fossils and cryptids that resemble dinosaurs, like the mokele mbembe we talked about way back in episode two. I’m not sure why they think that finding a living dinosaur would prove that the earth is only 6,000 years old. All it would prove is that that a non-avian dinosaur survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Anyway, these two men decided that Meyer’s dragon was a pterosaur, which brought the engraving to the attention of modern scientists, who hadn’t known about it before. Obviously the dragon wasn’t actually a pterosaur. What was it?

The original remains were long gone, but the engraving was of extremely high quality. In 2013 researchers were actually able to determine what animal bones Meyer had used to make his dragon. The skull is from a dog, the jaw is from another dog, the ribs are from a large fish, the hind limbs are actually the front leg bones of a young bear, and so on. The wings, horns, and a few other parts are carvings.

Gradually, historians pieced together the real story behind Meyer’s dragon. We don’t know who actually made the fake dragon, but they did a great job. But it wasn’t a real dragon, and it definitely wasn’t a pterosaur.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

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.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!