The coelacanth, a primitive fish species thought to have been extinct for almost 100 million years until one was hooked by a fisherman in 1938, has been observed in its native habitat for the first time.

West German scientists have photographed, filmed and taped six of the 4- to 6-foot-long fish from a research submarine working off the coast of the Comoro Islands, between Mozambique and Madagascar.

Because coelacanths may be ancestors to amphibians, the first bony animals to take up life on land, some experts had predicted that the fish would show behaviors that may have been precursors to those suitable for terrestrial life.

Some speculated, for example, that coelacanths used their fleshy fins as legs to crawl over the ocean floor.

The new observations, reported in last week's Nature, failed to find any crawling, even when the fish rested on the bottom, but did note that the animals paddled two main pairs of fins in a pattern like that of bottom-dwelling fish and four-footed land animals. The right front and left rear fins moved together, as did the left front and right rear.

The researchers observed a variety of unusual behaviors -- such as drifting in various positions, including head down, swimming backwards and swimming upside down.

Coelacanths are not the only living fish proposed as a close relative of the ancestors to land vertebrates. Many evolutionists see a better candidate in the lungfish, which does crawl on the bottom and can breathe air as well as water.

The coelacanth research was done by Hans Fricke, Olaf Reinicke and Heribert Hofer of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Physiology and Werner Nachtigall of the University of the Saarland.