In a Creation Ministries International article, they make the following claim about coelacanths:

Paleontologists believed that coelacanths went extinct about 65 million years ago. However, in 1938, fishermen off the coast of South Africa found them alive and well. By evolutionary logic, coelacanths have coexisted with a multitude of other sea creatures for the last 65 million years; yet, the fossil record is silent

Is this true?

  • Welcome to the site! Very nice question. Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 0:31
  • Near miss answer: Don Lindsay (via talk.origins) confirms the lack of fossils (with justification), but he appears to only be a self-appointed expert, so I don't think he warrants being a reference.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 2:49
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    The fossil record is often patchy. The Cenozoic has seen very low coelacanth diversity compared with their past. Richard Dawkins noted in The Greatest Show on Earth that creationists cannot consistently claim phyla start when their fossils do because they accept flatworms, which have never fossilised, are as old as other animals.
    – J.G.
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 8:48
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    The linked article is essentially making the fallacious god of the gaps argument, which inevitably falls apart, i.e., with the discovery of an 18 million year old tuatara fossil. Do these people have no sense of shame? Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 17:33

1 Answer 1


According to a Nature article from 1998 this is true (or at least, was in 1998).

Coelacanths were known for decades, but only as fossils. They appeared in the fossil record around 370 million years ago, had their heyday in terms of species diversity around 220 million years ago, and went into a long sunset that appeared to end with extinction, around 70 million years ago - just before the dinosaurs themselves perished.

And from later on in the article:

And why the huge geological gap - 70 million years - during which coelacanths must have existed, but are conspicuous by their absence?

The article goes on to suggest a possible explanation for the absence of fossils.

One answer could lie in the choosiness of the modern species, Latimeria chalumnae. Judging from its distribution within the Comoros, the fish prefers water that is both deep and cool - around 180 metres and less than 18 °C. In addition, it prefers to live near steep, submarine slopes pocked by caves. The Sulawesi coelacanths seem to prefer the same sort of habitat. But such pickiness is not extreme: there are probably many suitable places in the Indo-Pacific region that might yet harbour coelacanths.

Another answer is that the fossils of deep-sea fish of any kind, not just coelacanths, are scarce in the geological record. Historically, coelacanths occupied a variety of ecological niches, but deep-sea coelacanths are unlikely to have been preserved at all.

I.e. coelacanth fossils come from eras where they were widespread and occupied a large variety of ecological niches, whereas at their decline 70 million years ago they were left as a much rarer species that lives ina small number of deep ocean areas, and deep ocean species just don't leave many discoverable fossils.

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    Deep ocean species probably leave some fossils, but how discoverable are those fossils? The ocean levels go up and down by about 130 meters as ice sheets melt or freeze. But it would take many tens of millions of years for a deep sea floor to rise up above sea level, if it ever happens. Since the coelacanths disappeared from the fossil record "only" 70 million years ago there hasn't been enough time for any possible coelacanth fossils on the deep sea floor to be raised about sea level and discovered. Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 17:57
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    And any fossils that do exist in the deep sea sediment are going to be extremely hard and very expensive to find and bring up. If you've a few tens of millions of dollars and access to a deep sea manned vehicle and control ship, you might be able to find some.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 11:09
  • Bone dissolves in salt water, so a body would need to be buried quickly (a few years max) to fossilize in the ocean.
    – Foo Bar
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 21:50

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