Scientist works to save rare fish

Saturday, November 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

More information on the coelacanth at
A marine biologist from Cincinnati is at the forefront of an effort in Indonesia to conserve a species of fish once thought extinct.

Dr. Mark Erdmann, a 1986 graduate of Sycamore High School, has seen the species of fish - a coelacanth - twice, once in a fish market in Manado on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in September 1997, and again this past July when a fisherman brought one to his Indonesian home.

Coelacanths, thought to be extinct until they were re-discovered in 1938, are referred to as a "living fossil," and have never been found anywhere but in waters around the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of Africa.

The fish was thought to have become extinct 65 million years ago, and fossil evidence of it goes back 400 million years.

"It's neat that in this day and age of instantaneous electronic communications that there are still things which are completely unknown right around us," said Dr. Erdmann, 30, in a phone interview from Indonesia.

"It's something that escaped detection for this long in an area that's quite well known scientifically.

"It's kind of like finding a dinosaur back in the forest." The discovery of the fish in Indonesian waters, more than 6,000 miles from Africa, means it could be more widespread than originally thought. Genetic analyses are being done to determine if it is the same species of coelacanth found in Comoros waters.

But it also means the Indonesian government is looking into taking steps to protect the fish. Dr. Erdmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, is flying to Jakarta on Sunday for a meeting to establish a national agenda for research and conservation of the new find.

Dr. Erdmann has been studying coral-reef ecology in Indonesia since 1992. He began working in earnest to find another coelacanth after he and his wife spotted one in a Manado fish market.

Funded by National Geographic, he interviewed more than 200 fishermen in 30 villages in Sulawesi. Finally, on July 30, 1998, a fisherman brought him a live coelacanth. It was four feet long and weighed 64 pounds.

Dr. Erdmann was able to swim with and photograph the fish in the reefs by his home before it died after three hours. It was given to Indonesian scientists to preserve.

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