Ocean sunfish are such wonderfully odd, almost comic book-like beings. Apart from their aesthetically mad mosaic of physical features, the Mola, as they’re technically known, is the heaviest known bony fish in the world, and can weigh around a tonne (2,205 pounds), sometimes nearly twice that. Females also, rather insanely, produce 300 million eggs at once, more than any other known vertebrate.
As reported by National Geographic, we have yet another bizarre giganto-fish to add to the roster. An entirely new species of ocean sunfish – the first in 125 years – has been discovered, as reported in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Led by a team of researchers at Australia’s Murdoch University, the DNA of more than 150 sunfish samples were analyzed. They concluded that there were definitely four distinct species of ocean sunfish – but only three had previously been categorized. That means, in a rather casual way, a new species of ocean sunfish had been discovered.
There was a problem, however: no-one knew what it looked like. These DNA samples were not directly attributed to the sunfish from which they were taken, so the search was now on to find a living example of this new species.
Rather appropriately, the team named this notoriously elusive creature the Mola tecta, whose species name derives from the Latin word for “hidden.” Colloquially, it’s called the “hoodwinker sunfish.”
After a four-year-long search, the lead researcher – Ph.D. student Marianne Nyegaard – received a tip-off from a New Zealand fishery that one may have washed up on the shores of Christchurch. Heading there in person to take a look for herself, she told The Conversation: “I saw my first hoodwinker sunfish in the headlights of the car – it was incredibly exciting.”
Nyegaard found that its biology was quite different from that of most sunfish. In fact, it’s probably the least strange looking of them all, lacking in strange humps and even a snout. It may still be around a tonne or two heavy, but overall, its body is far slimmer than its brethren.
After DNA samples and parts of this poor, sadly deceased sunfish were sent away for testing, an international team of experts confirmed that this was indeed the hoodwinker sunfish that they had been searching for all this time.
In the years since the initial discovery was made, the Mola tecta has been spotted in a range of places around the Southern Hemisphere’s hydrosphere, including off the shores of Tasmania, southern Chile, and South Africa. According to Nyegaard, this suggests that this species prefers colder waters in which to live.
Either way, Nyegaard’s remarkable discovery means that the strangest and most enigmatic family of fish just got a little bigger.
[H/T: National Geographic]