Dispute Over a Legendary Fish

By: 
Constance Holden
1999-03-30 19:00

Thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago, the coelacanth pulled off a miraculous revival when a fisher caught one off South Africa in 1938. Another extraordinary chapter in the saga was written last year, when a second population of the big ugly fish turned up some 10,000 kilometers away in Indonesia. Now the coelacanth story has taken a nasty turn: The Indonesian variety's discoverer has accused another researcher of a "dishonorable act of scientific piracy" for a report, appearing in a French journal next month, that calls the Indonesian coelacanth a new species and gives it a name.

No one thought the living fossil survived anywhere else in the world except off southeast Africa until Mark Erdmann, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, tracked down a coelacanth in Indonesia last summer. After taking tissue samples, Erdmann donated the fish to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Cibinong. He claims LIPI had agreed that a team at the University of Texas (UT), Austin, would be the first to publish an analysis of the fish's DNA, after which the LIPI scientists could name the new species--if that's what the Indonesian coelacanth turned out to be.

Shortly thereafter, LIPI scientists got geneticist Laurent Pouyaud of the French Institute for Development Research (IRD) in Jakarta to help them with their own analysis. Pouyaud submitted a report to Nature last January, just days after the UT group's analysis arrived at the journal. In February Nature rejected the paper from Pouyaud, who then offered a revised version to the French Academy of Sciences' Comptes Rendus de L'Académie de Sciences, which published the report in its April issue.

Based on an analysis of two swatches of mitochondrial DNA, Pouyaud and his group report that the Indonesian coelacanths diverged from their African cousin, Latimeria chalumnae, between 1.2 million and 1.5 million years ago. The genetic and morphological distinctions between the two populations are great enough to merit classifying the Indonesian coelacanth as a new species, they conclude, naming it L. menadoensis, after the volcanic island, Manado Tua, where the fish was found. The UT group's analysis, still under review at Nature, puts the divergence much earlier, around 5 million to 7 million years ago.

Erdmann says he is outraged that Pouyaud stands to get the lion's share of credit for naming the species. "All this guy did was stick some meat in a sequencer," he says. He adds that he would not have complained if the Indonesians had named the fish. Pouyaud calls Erdmann's distress sour grapes. "Two scientific research teams were competing," he says. "At the end, little David beat Goliath." Pouyaud's employer is squarely behind him. "We know nothing about any agreement between Dr. Erdmann and the rightful owners of the specimen" at LIPI, says IRD's Patrice Cayre. "LIPI has every right to do whatever it wants with the specimen."

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