Here comes the Sun(fish): Starting the new PhD

August 2014

Hello Belfast!


The view of Belfast from my office window

So after a year or so in the planning, I have finally arrived in sunny Belfast (yes, really sunny!) to make a start on my PhD. My name is Natasha Phillips and I have just begun a 3.5 year FSBI* funded PhD: Extent and Drivers for Cryptic Benthivory in the ‘Pelagic’ Ocean Sunfish. Fancy sounding title(!) but really I aim to consider the links between diet, behaviour and energy use in sunfish and to assess how these change as the fish grow.

*FSBI = Fisheries Society of the British Isles (

Ocean sunfish have to be the strangest looking fish in the sea; called ‘moon fish’ in Italy (since they resemble the moon reflected in the water), ‘swimming head’ in Germany (speaks for itself) and ‘toppled-wheel fish’ in Japan (someone might have been pulling my leg on that one…) but aside from the fantastic names they are called, I can’t help but love their weird shape and permanently surprised expression.


Photo of juvenile ocean sunfish, Italy (Credit Lukas Kubicek)

As a bit of an introduction: the ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is the world’s largest bony fish with the heaviest specimen recorded measuring 2.7 m in length and weighing 2.3 tonnes! (Roach 2003)

Often seen basking at the surface, there was a long held perception that this species was an inactive drifter of little ecological relevance (Pope et al., 2010), reflected in its absence from IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) or CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora) evaluations. However, long-distance tracking studies have demonstrated long distance migration across national boundaries (Potter et al., 2001), whilst high levels of fisheries by-catch in Mediterranean, Californian and South African waters have shown the species can be highly abundant on a local scale e.g. ~36,450 individuals killed accidentally p.a. in a single Moroccan fishery(Silvani et al., 1999, Cartamil et al., 2004).

Ocean sunfish are also targeted by several fisheries for human consumption, but due to the lack of basic biology and ecology on this species, there are few fisheries regulations. The broader consequences of this wholesale removal from marine systems therefore requires urgent attention and forms the backdrop to this study.

Sunfish fishery

Photo of ocean sunfish fishery, Japan (Credit Kotaro Sagara)

In light of these issues, I hope that my research will be of use for future management and conservation strategies (more details to come later) and of course hands-on work with these crazy fish is going to be amazing.

So now all that remains is to get my desk set up and get down to some science!

P.S. If anyone ends up reading this and has any questions or comments on sunfish/marine biology/PhD life or anything really please do get in touch via my email or twitter 🙂


twitter: @sunfishresearch

Marine Culture Center (9)

Sunfish in the Marine Culture Center, Japan (Credit Kotaro Sagara)


Cartamil et al. Mar Ecol Prog 266 245-253, 2004

Pope et al. Rev Fish Biol Fish 20 471-87, 2010

Potter et al. J Exp Mar Biol&Ecol 396 138-46, 2011

Roach J (2003) World’s heaviest bony fish discovered? National Geographic. Available via

Silvani et al. Biol Cons 90 79-85, 1999


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