The frozen fish: First day of fieldwork!

September 2014

I have been at Queen’s for over a month now, (sorting out paperwork and getting all my background work done), and I have yet to see a sunfish… however an email has just arrived from Gary and Gillian at the Loughs Agency bearing news of a dead sunfish washed up in Lough Foyle. This would usually be a sad event, to see one of these lovely fish stranded, but today all is forgotten in anticipation of a rare opportunity to examine an ocean sunfish.

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The stranded sunfish

I hope that by having a dead specimen, we will be able to dissect one so I can see the detailed physiology of the species. This will help to achieve some the main aims of my PhD (admittedly not the behavioural side of things…) but we should be able to take samples of different tissues for stable isotope analysis and dietary reconstruction as well as to section the vertebrae to try and calculate how to age the species for the first time!

I am also fascinated by the mouth structure (with fused teeth like a beak) and a better understanding of the teeth morphology and wear patterns could help our dietary study. Providing we make a neat job of the dissection, it is hoped that the skeleton of this specimen will be put on display in a museum.

In this way, a sad story of stranding and death can be transformed into a wonderful opportunity for research that will be used to benefit the species and raise a wider awareness of the amazing creatures that swim our seas.

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A close up of the fish lice on the skin of the sunfish

Having “volunteered” my good friend and fellow PhD student Lawrence Eagling (oyster biology extraordinaire and converted sunfish enthusiast) to drive up to Derry, we set about taping bin bags across the boot of the car to avoid any unwanted fish leakage seeping in… no expense spared!

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The happy volunteer (many thanks!!)

We arrived at the Loughs agency HQ and were quickly introduced to our frozen subject, who we nick-named Murray the Mola mola. Having grabbed Murray from freezer we bagged him up and heaved him into the car. Job done!

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All bagged up and ready to roll!

The drive back was more eventful than anticipated, since it turns out that having a large frozen fish wrapped in plastic, on a bed of plastic bags acts like a dead weight which slides and surfs around the car on every turn.

Aside from concern for Murray’s well-being, I was worried if we braked too suddenly, he might fly forward, launch off the ramp created by the plastic coated back seats and we would be decapitated by a frozen fish! To prevent Murray from repeatedly bashing the car and potentially snapping his fins (or our necks), a “roundabout protocol” was enacted. Health and safety is important kids! Lawrence would loudly announce every turn we were approaching and I endeavoured to grasp a handful of fishy body bag to limit Murray’s momentum!

Luckily we made the journey before the fish defrosted and Murray is currently residing in the so-called ‘freezer of death’ in the MBC at Queen’s awaiting dissection!

Many, many thanks to Gary, Gillian and the Loughs Agency for their help in securing this rare specimen for us and fingers crossed a video of the dissection will be available online later this year!

Seen a sunfish (dead or alive)? Any questions? Get in touch! nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

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