Hoodwinked by a 2 ton fish! The discovery of a new sunfish species

It’s not often that new megafaunal species are discovered these days, but for the first time in 130 years we have a new sunfish on the block! Introducing Mola tecta, to be commonly known as the hoodwinker sunfish, identified by Marianne Nyegaard.

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M. tecta in the wild (photo credit César Villarroel, ExploraSub)

Only a few weeks back I wrote a blog about the differing sunfish species and how scientists from several different labs had suggested there was at least one other Mola species out there in the big blue. Now thanks to Marianne and her collaborators, we have a formal description of a species entirely new to science which means it can be officially added to the sunfish ranks! Following four years of painstaking work, Marianne has amassed considerable data on this new species, including genetic and morphological data, which means it can now be easily identified.

The simplest method to tell a hoodwinker sunfish from any other sunfish species is to look at its reduced tail fin, the clavus. The hoodwinker’s clavus has a small fold in the middle that appears to divide the clavus into two lobes (see Marianne’s diagram below). This is a feature that only hoodwinkers seem to have, and now they are being noted all over the southern hemisphere including off New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia, South Africa and Chile!

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Scaled line diagram of M. tecta by diver (illustration by Michelle Freeborn, Wellington Museum Te Papa Tangarewa)

This wonderful piece of detective work has led Marianne all over the world collecting data, and is also testament to the kindness and enthusiasm of the public, sending in samples from remote areas. After hiding in plain sight among the tangled taxonomy of sunfishes, this species finally has a name, a type specimen for reference and a genetic signature so it can be clearly identified.

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New display specimen at the Otago Museum

However, now the Hoodwinker has been established, we have many more mysteries to solve: how many are there? how far can they range? are they, like other sunfishes, subject to high fisheries pressures? The research questions (already numerous enough with the current number of sunfish species) are stacking up rapidly! It could be that the Hoodwinker has been identified only to discover that it too is vulnerable in our changing oceans.

As with many marine species, we will need to learn more about these strange creatures to ensure they are sustainably managed; to safeguard their habitat, to understand their role in local ecosystems and to keep the environment in balance for it’s own sake and for future generations to admire.

It seems this exciting new discovery is just the beginning…. !

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As always, if you would like to ask any questions about PhD life, fishy science or if you spot a sunfish (esp. a stranded specimen) please get in touch using the channels below:

Comments section on this blog

Twitter: @SunfishResearch

Email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

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