Professor Mike Bruton has kept alive the story of the coelacanth – one of the greatest biological discoveries of the 20th century – using an Alice in Wonderland book-annotation model.
Professor Mike Bruton has kept alive the story of the coelacanth – one of the greatest biological discoveries of the 20th century – using an Alice in Wonderland book-annotation model.
The coelacanth made itself known in the nets of an East London trawler when everyone thought it had long vanished off the face of the Earth.
The coelacanth made itself known in the nets of an East London trawler when everyone thought it had long vanished off the face of the Earth.
Durban - The story behind the great coelacanth survival cannot be allowed to die.
Fish scientist – or ichthyologist – Mike Bruton wants the great South African tale of  “Old Fourlegs”, thought to have died out millions of years ago but found alive in South African waters, to remain alive and well.
To do so, he has taken JLB Smith’s best seller, Old Fourlegs The Story of the Coelacanth, about searching for and finding the prehistoric-looking fish between 1938 and 1952, and written his own book, working his own notes into the margins.
“The English editions are all out of print and I do not want this famous science story, which is quintessentially South African, to die,” he told The Independent on Saturday.
“It is an inspirational story that excites scientists and laymen alike and needs to be kept alive.”
Bruton will present a talk on the discovery at uShaka Marine World on December 5. 
“I initially planned, with the permission of the original publishers, Longmans, Green & Co of London, to just reprint the original book with a short introduction, but then I decided that it deserved more. 
“Following the model of a book called The Annotated Alice, edited by Martin Gardner, in which the original text of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was republished with extensive explanatory notes in the margins, I have done the same.”
Popular television science and maths teacher William Smith, JLB Smith and fellow scientist Margaret Smith’s son, wrote a witty and informative foreword to Bruton’s The Annotated Old Fourlegs The Updated Story of the Coelacanth.
He said a great deal more had been discovered about the coelacanth.
“I put JLB Smith’s writing in context, help readers to understand the significance of the story, update the coelacanth story, comment on the accuracy of his various predictions on the coelacanth, which are almost all very accurate. I also add more detail to some of the events that he described,” said Bruton.
Bruton first “met” the coelacanth in the East London Museum at the age of 
about 10.
“I knew the curator, Dr Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, as a teenager and worked with her during my professional life. 
“I have retained strong links with the East London Museum and launched this book there earlier this month.
“I studied under JLB and Margaret Smith at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and eventually took over from Margaret as the second director of the Ichthyology Institute.”
Much of the updated information has been gathered in collaboration with Professor Hans Fricke of Germany and Professor Eugene Balon of Canada, all of which is reviewed in the concluding chapters of the book. 
“They include its habitat preferences, population size, age and growth rates, breeding and feeding habits, and conservation status.”
Bruton said his greatest thrill was seeing live coelacanths in a cave at a depth of 198 metres off Grande Comoro island from the German research submersible, Jago, in 2008.
He said the closest known coelacanths to Durban live in canyons around Jesser Point at Sodwana Bay in the isiMangaliso Wetland Park.
Durban features prominently in Bruton’s book.
“The story of the recovery of the second coelacanth from the Comoros in December 1952 is intimately linked with Durban. JLB Smith was in Durban Docks on board the Dunnottar Castle when he first heard about the capture of the second coelacanth and he made all the arrangements for his trip to fetch the fish in a military Dakota from there. 
“On his return he gave a famous and very dramatic SABC radio interview at Durban Airport, part of which I will play during my talk at uShaka.”
Anyone wishing to attend Bruton’s 5.30pm talk on December 5 is asked to call 031 328 8222, or to e-mail [email protected]
The Independent on Saturday