A few months ago I explored the story behind the names for two fish-themed beers- one from Bell’s Brewery (Two Hearted Ale) and another from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery (The Great Return). This morning I saw the new t-shirt design for another fish-centric brewery, Coelacanth Brewery and thought “hey, maybe I should bring back the mini-series for this week’s blog.”
And then I realized that today is National Beer Day.
Okay world, I’m listening.
The slogan for Coelacanth Brewery is “ugly fish, beautiful beer,” and boy did they hit the nail on the head with that one. Because this is a fish blog, I’ll focus on the first half of that slogan (but I assure you, the second half is also no lie).
Located in Norfolk, Virginia, Coelacanth Brewery (which you can see the phonetic spelling of on their t-shirt design, along with the proper Virginian pronunciation of Norfolk) is named after one of the most ancient fish species still alive. Long thought extinct, the first living coelacanth was discovered in 1938 off the coast of Africa. The African coelacanth enjoyed it’s status as the only living species for nearly 60 years until it was joined by another species of coelacanth found off the coast of Indonesia (ironically this species was first discovered at a market, but it was caught alive a year later).
Coelacanths are the fisheries equivalent to a living dinosaur, and critical pieces of evolutionary history. Though later genomic studies debunked this myth, it was once thought that coelacanths were the ancestors to modern-day tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates including amphibians, reptiles and, that’s right, even humans). It was later determined that lungfish, a close relative to coelacanths, were the first to walk out of water. But, looking at a coelacanth’s fins it is easy to see why scientists were mistaken. Those weird looking, oddly placed appendages are not the ray fins that we typically find on fish. Rather, coelacanth fins are fleshy and lobed, much like we might associate with a salamander or frog. Moreover, they move their fins in an alternating pattern similar to how a dog moves their legs when trotting. This unique fin structure is what classifies coelacanths into the class Sarcopterygii, of which most species belonging to that class are now extinct.
But, the weirdness of the coelacanth doesn’t end with its fins. While most fish lay eggs, coelacanths actually give birth to live young, known as ‘pups.’ These pups are able to immediately start fending from themselves and feed with the help of an electrosensory organ on their nose. This organ allows coelacanths to detect changes in electrical signals around them, which can be used to detect prey and even navigate around their environment. Coelacanths also enjoy the benefits of a hinged jaw which, much like a snake, can be opened far wider than their heads so they can consume a very large meal at once.
Living up to 60 years old and growing up to 6 feet long, an adult coelacanth is one of the longest lived species of fish. However, scientists don’t know that much about coelacanths because they live in the deep sea and are most active at night, two conditions that make studies difficult to near impossible. But, with the limited information in hand, our best guess is that coelacanth populations are endangered, with some estimating as few as 1,000 individuals remaining across the two species.
Our inability to study coelacanths means that we really lack great information on what threatens their populations and what we might be able to do to increase population sizes. But, we can rule out with some certainty that populations are declining from targeted predation (both human and animal), because coelacanths are about as appetizing as they look. Much of their flesh is oily and waxy, including their braincase which is nearly 99% filled with fat and only a small fraction of actual brain tissue. They even lack vertebra and instead of a bony backbone, they have an oil-filled tube known as a notochord (which is another throwback to primitive body plans that was once common in many now extinct species). While possible predators of coelacanths know to avoid these swimming wax candles, one possible source of preventable mortality is as by-catch in deep sea fishing trawls.
So, part tetrapod, part snake…mostly fat and full of ugly. I can’t say coelacanths will ever top my list beautiful fish species, but you have to appreciate their history…and the fact that there’s now a brewery that bears their name.