Monday, 27 August 2012

Of Dodos and Coelacanth

East London has been a place I wanted to visit for a while due the history behind the discovery of the coelacanth, a fish thought to be extinct for over 70 million years. Imagine the surprise when one was caught off East London in December of 1938. It is like finding dinosaurs are not extinct.  The fish was put on display and on the first day of showing over 1000 visitors saw the exhibit. I went to see the fish and also the worlds only dodo egg.

Original sketches from the discovery.

So I went to the museum heading straight for the natural history section finding a whole room dedicated to the coelacanth. I keep myself from looking at the specimen in the center of the room and instead read all the signs and saw the original drawings of the specimen. When I could no longer hold my excitement I headed to the center of the room and wow! It was preserved amazingly. I have seen a coelacanth in London and Cape town natural history museums but they where white and faded, only just recognisable as the fish. But this one was preserved amazingly. I stayed looking at the specimen for at least 10 minutes before searching for the other item which had drawn me in, the dodo egg.

The coelacanth
Imagine my disappointment then when the egg on display was just a replica. The original is kept locked away behind the scenes. I then decided to use my newly acquired qualification and a bit of truth stretching by saying I was a zoologist from the U.K and had come to East London specifically to see the egg (which was true it was why I came to East London, but I made it sound as if I had come all the way from the U.K just to see it). After a bit of thought the receptionist called one of the behind the scenes team who where only too happy to show me the egg and much more.

I was taken behind the locked doors and told to wait while the egg was fetched from a locked room. Then all security measures where forgotten and I was able to see the egg for as long as I wanted and snap some photos. I was told the history of the item too.

Coelacanth (head cut away to see skull)
A few people doubt its a dodo egg and just an irregular ostrich egg. The previous curator Miss Courtenay Latimer, who also first saw the coelacanth after a fisherman brought it into the museum (and who the latin name is also honoring) was in possession of the egg from her great aunt, Lavinia Bean. She herself got the egg from her father, Mr L.O Bean who got it from a friend, Captain van Syker. The captain got the egg as payment for a debt from a man from Mauritius, the Dodos home island. The man supposedly had two eggs but only paid with one. The other eggs whereabouts is unknown.

Incidentally Lee Durrell, Gerald Durrell’s widow, saw the egg and told the staff that while in Russia they had heard about two dodo eggs which where in existence. Ones whereabouts was unknown probably in a private collection in Russia. The other however was traded as payment for a ferry ticket the owner couldn't afford, in Mauritius. This ties in nicely supporting the story of how the museum got the egg.

The dodo egg
The egg cannot be confirmed as dodo until the owners, the descendants of miss Latimer, who are loaning it to the museum allow a DNA test. I believe it to be dodo as do most people. There is plenty more information out there to why it is likely to be a dodo egg not an ostrich.

Lastly I was shown footprints made by early homo sapiens which are the oldest in the world out dating Eve from Langebaan by 7,000 years! These new prints are believed, from tests, to be 124,000 years old. They where found in the dunes 5km from East London and the originals are on display in the museum, not casts. The staff where very nice and I would like to thank them for allowing me this rare glimpse.

This is a long post as I was impressed and wanted to get that across and give some information I gathered to you. No idea as yet what the next post will be on but keep an eye on here as I am heading North now towards Durban and new territory for me so plenty of exploring.

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