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The Boston Globe


Science in Mind

Looking to ‘living fossil’ for clues to human evolution

The ever-expanding use of genome sequencing technologies has built a kind of DNA zoo, including all manner of creatures — great and small, living and extinct. Now, add to the collection of humans, mosquitoes, lizards, and woolly mammoths a primitive-looking fish called the coelacanth.

The coelacanth has long been known by a popular nickname that makes biologists wince: the “living fossil” fish. The term, first coined by Charles Darwin over a century ago, is used because the coelacanth -- which was discovered when it was caught in a fishing nest in 1938 -- looks a lot like ancestors known only by their fossilized remains. But scientists have always bristled at the suggestion it’s some kind of evolutionary zombie.

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