News » SAIAB collaborates in new coelacanth search

SAIAB collaborates in new coelacanth search

Friday, 08 June 2018

An expedition by marine scientists and film-makers to find coelacanths in Sodwana Bay recently set off and Grahamstown based SAIAB is playing a leading role. Lucky Dlamini spoke to Dr Angus Paterson, managing director of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB – @NRF_SAIAB; to get a clearer view of this cruise.

SAIAB’s historical link with coelacanth research goes back to 1938 when a single specimen was identified on the deck of a fishing vessel near East London. “The search for a second specimen continued up until the 1950s and is well articulated in the famous book called Old Fourlegs,” said Dr Paterson. Mike Bruton's recently published book, The Annotated Old Fourlegs, is a reproduction of the original text by the famous South African fish scientist Professor JLB Smith who created an international sensation when he published Old Fourlegs - The Story of the Coelacanth in 1956. The Annotated Old Fourlegs includes a facsimile reprint of the original book with added notes and images in the margins, providing an interesting and revealing commentary on Smith's text. The book also provides new introductory and explanatory chapters that bring the coelacanth story up to date.

“In 2000, coelacanths were discovered in Sodwana Bay, and we are involved in this latest search through the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP – @ACEP_ZA) which is managed by SAIAB,” said Dr Paterson.

Through dedicated funding from the Department of Science and Technology, ACEP is a research platform that has been facilitating research into the coelacanth’s ecology and providing access to research infrastructure (e.g. ship’s time, coastal craft, remote operated vehicles, etc.), to South African scientists for a number of years. On this cruise, ACEP is collaborating with WILDOCEANS (@WILDOCEANSSA). WILDOCEANS is one of the biggest local environmental and conservation NGOs in South Africa. It is part of the WILDTRUST, which pioneers innovative sustainable programmes through networks in 60 communities across KwaZulu-Natal, Western, Northern and Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng. WILDOCEANS has provided the Angra Pequena, research vessel for the cruise.

Dr Paterson said: “The coelacanth search is an ongoing research project that adds to the continued flow of information. This is important as the coelacanth legacy forms the cornerstone of our marine research.”

Asked what the plans are should the discovery of more coelacanths be successful, Dr Paterson emphasised that: “Research is not a start-&-stop activity. We will learn from this expedition. There is no doubt we will have lots of unanswered questions, so we will move forward and reformulate additional questions.” According to Paterson, the cruise as “an ongoing pursuit of knowledge which adds a small part to that ongoing quest.”

SAIAB’s mission is to empower and develop young researchers. Dr Paterson stressed that the strength of collaborations such as this one with WILDOCEANS is that: “all our projects involve a large number of students who are either studying towards their degrees or getting field experience on vessels or using different equipment.” He describes this involvement as forming part of “a framework of training and teaching the next generation of scientists.”

This article has been published by Grocott's Mail and is available at: