The coelacanth was known from fossils dating from about 360 years ago and was thought to have gone extinct about 65 million years ago. In 1938 a specimen was caught by fishermen off the Eastern Cape coast and the Captain of the trawler notified the curator of the East London Museum, Miss Marjorie Courtney-Latimer. She recognised it as being a living version a group of fishes only known from fossils. The living species was described by Dr J.L.B. Smith and the discovery has continued to create interest amongst evolutionary biologists ever since then. The first specimen discovered is now on display at the East London Museum.

Since that time several more specimens have been acquired for research collections A coelacanth specimen in the collection of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in Grahamstown, was sent on loan to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where it was publically displayed.