A group of South African shark hunters have unwittingly rediscovered a population of fish predating dinosaurs that many in the scientific community believed to be extinct.
The "four-legged fossil fish" known as the coelacanth has been found alive and well in the West Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar, according to a report from the nonprofit environmental conservation platform Mongabay News.
Their re-emergence is in part thanks to fishermen using gillnets in their shark-hunting expeditions, the outlet reported. As they continue to target sharks for their fins, oil and other commercial enterprises, the high-tech deep-sea nets are able to reach where coelacanths gather, about 328 to 492 feet below the water's surface.
The species, which dates back 420 million years, was thought to have been extinct until 1938, when the first living coelacanth in recent memory was discovered off the South African Coast, Mongabay News reported. Scientists were shocked to find a member of the "Latimeria chalumnae" species still alive, with its eight fins, a specific spotting pattern on the scales and huge bodies.
A recent study in the SA Journal of Science indicated that the coelacanths might face a new threat to survival with the uptick in shark hunting, which began booming in the 1980s.
"The jarifa gillnets used to catch sharks are a relatively new and more deadly innovation as they are large and can be set in deep water," the researchers noted in their paper.
They fear that the coelacanths are now at risk for "exploitation," particularly in Madagascar.
"There is little doubt that large mesh jarifa gillnets are now the biggest threat to the survival of coelacanths in Madagascar," they wrote.
Lead author Andrew Cooke told Mongabay News that he and the other researchers were shocked at the increase of accidental coelacanth captures.
"When we looked into this further, we were astounded [by the numbers caught]...even though there has been no proactive process in Madagascar to monitor or conserve coelacanths," he said.
Their study goes on to purport that, with Madagascar likely being the "epicenter" of various coelacanth subspecies, it is imperative that conservation steps are taken to preserve the ancient species.
Despite Cooke's documented instances of recent coelacanth hunting and suspected trafficking, not all researchers agree with their findings.
Madagascan government marine researcher Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante told Mongabay News that he is not concerned with the species becoming a hot commodity with hunters.
"Catching a coelacanth is totally uncommon and people are in some ways even afraid to catch something that is so uncommon. So I don't think that coelacanths are being targeted deliberately," Mahatante said.
Regardless, Cooke and his team want to continue educating people about the unique coelacanth species based on about 40 years of research.
"The paper provides the first comprehensive account of Madagascar coelacanths and demonstrates the existence of a regionally important population and extensive suitable habitat," they noted in the SA Journal of Science.
The coelacanth is not the only species rediscovered after going "extinct" in local populations. In April, a highly venomous sea snake was found in Australia for the first time in 23 years.