Seeking sunfish samples: the global sunfish study begins!

Yesterday I fully realised the power of social media… I saw a photo online of a giant sunfish that had stranded in Norway (somewhere we know sunfishes occur, but relatively rarely it seems), and within a few hours I was discussing sunfish ecology with Fredrik Jutfelt (the scientist who found the specimen & conducted a detailed beach dissection), and Guus Wellesen, (a researcher at the nearby NTNU) who is preserving some of the tissues collected. This quickly led to sharing of the new samples to increase the scope of our global study! We haven’t been able to collect samples from this region so far, and so this collaboration represents an amazing insight into sunfish ecology, to see if our predictions for their diet and habitat-use hold true across differing populations around the world.

Sunfish stranded in Trondheim, Norway (photos Fredrik Jutfelt)

This is not the first time I have been offered help with my studies by people I have only met virtually, but it helps to further illustrate how, even with 6.6 billion people in the world, we are all becoming more closely connected. The theoretical six degrees of separation must be continuously reduced by new social media networks linking people with common interests from all over the world.

In terms of our research, thanks to such connections we now have sunfish samples arranged from Italy, Ireland, the UK, the USA, Peru, Norway and France! I am so very grateful for our many collaborators who have collected or donated tissues! We are working together to try better understand the ecology of this vulnerable species to further conservation efforts and I am delighted to be a part of this global network.

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So many sunfish samples, but still lots of space!

Today I would like to make the most of this opportunity to reach even more people and ask if anyone else has access to ocean sunfish tissues; from museums or fisheries; if they strand dead in your local area; if they are frozen/in ethanol/dried we are always interested!

If the samples exist and you can spare 5mg for analysis please please please get in touch using the comments section below or via Twitter: @SunfishResearch or email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk  We are happy to reimburse postage costs and we will acknowledge all help in any future publications 🙂

Many thanks for your help and for spreading the message

Tasha  🙂

 

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Fishy Trivia 3): Spotting Southern Ocean Sunfish

Today’s blog is based on the little-known ‘southern ocean sunfish’, less commonly known as Mola ramsayi. The southern ocean sunfish has a bit of a raw deal, often outshone by its famous sibling species Mola mola, which is confusingly, (and somewhat arrogantly) known as the ocean sunfish… but now it’s time for the Southern Sunfish to shine!!

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Photo of Mola ramsayi stranded on shallow waters in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. (Image credit; Martin Gomon, made available through Wikimedia Commons)

Originally, when M. ramsayi was first described, it was suggested to only occur in the Southern Hemisphere (hence the common name), but since then individuals have been spotted in the Northern Hemisphere too, including the Sea of Oman, the Indian waters of Chennai and co-occurring with M. mola.

Superficially, Mola ramsayi looks a lot like Mola mola, but there are a few ways to tell them apart without resorting to genetic analysis. Polish up your specs and have a closer look at that funny tail; the clavus. Firstly, we need to look at the fin rays. These act as skeletal support, fanning out the clavus, which acts as a rudder to steer the fish and guide its movements; M. ramsayi has 16 fin rays,  whereas M. mola only has 12 . Aside from the rays, M. ramsayi has 12 closely spaced ossicles which form the strange bumpy projections along the clavus and which are larger than the spaces between them, whereas M. mola only has 8, broadly spaced ossicles. If counting ossicles isn’t your thing, another handy feature to look out for is the reduced band of denticles in front of the clavus that only appear on M. mola.

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The above figure shows four images of a Mola ramsayi specimen that stranded in Oman where A) shows its lack of denticle band and B) shows the ossicles on the clavus with more details shown near the fins in C) and D). These images illustrate an awesome paper, documenting the first record of Mola ramsayi from the Sea of Oman, see full reference: Sea NO, Bejgan N (2014) The first record of southern ocean sunfish, Mola ramsayi from Northern Oman Sea, Iran. Iran J Fish Sci 13:242–246.

For a whole body comparison between the two species, maybe the following image is more useful:

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The above figure shows (A) M. ramsayi with a scale bar representing 50 cm; so the entire fish was 144 cm in length (photograph credit: Alex Hearn); (B) M. mola from California waters, where the arrow points to the band of reduced denticles (photograph credit: Mike Johnson). This figure is part of a great paper recording the first southern ocean sunfish sighting in the Galápagos, full reference: Thys TM, Whitney J, Hearn A, Weng KC, Peñaherrera C, Jawad L, Alfaro-Shigueto J, Mangel J., Karl SA (2013) First record of the southern ocean sunfish, Mola ramsayi, in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Mar Biodivers Rec 6:e70.

These two papers provide a wonderful insight into the ecology of M. ramsayi, and I would highly recommend them for further reading on this stunning species. It is incredible how little we know about this fish considering they occur over such a broad area and reach lengths of up to 3.3 m! In 2014, a specimen was caught by a trawler at 85 m deep in Oman, revealing an initial idea of their ranging capabilities… in 2015 we published a sighting at 483 m from an Australian oil rig camera system… and this year a new sighting at 1,112 m deep has emerged from the Galápagos Marine Reserve which represents the deepest dive yet for any species within the Molidae family!!

As always with sunfish research, there is so much more to learn! Since M. ramsayi are not yet assessed by the IUCN (owing to a lack of data), there is a pressing need to further understand their ecology to ensure that sustainable fisheries management strategies are put in place to protect this wonderful species for the future.

If you would like to ask any questions about sunfishy science, academic life or if you spot a sunfish (esp. a stranded specimen) please get in touch using the comments section below or via Twitter: @SunfishResearch or email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk  🙂

Fishy trivia 2): secrets of the sharp-tailed sunfish!

Around a month ago I promised a whistle-stop tour of all ocean sunfish species, but as always, the best laid plans frequently go astray! The recent stranding events proved irresistible for blogging… but today is the day we get back on track!! Today’s star is the sharp-tailed Mola, less commonly known as Masturus lanceolatus.

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The sharp-tail is a strange beastie, like an over-inflated rugby ball. It has a more rounded outline in comparison to the more commonly known Mola mola, until you reach the clavus that is (the rudder-like, reduced tail fin). The ‘sharp-tail’ has just that… a strange pointed projection half way along the clavus. The function of this funny fin is not yet understood, but if I had to guess, I would suggest it may have something to do with reducing drag and improving the hydrodynamics of swimming. Definitely a fishy feature that would be really interesting to investigate further!

2The species is suggested to live in tropical and subtropical waters, diving to depths of nearly 1000m deep, with the largest specimen measuring over 3.3m long and weighing 2 tons! Sharp-tails are suggested to be widely distributed but relatively rarely seen, and a study in 2009 suggested that individuals may live to be 105 years old! Although the market for sunfish as a food source is fairly limited, there is a target fishery for the species in Taiwan, where the fishery takes up to 494 tonnes of sunfish each year (90% Masturus lanceolatus, 10% Mola mola). Traditionally, only the internal organs were eaten (intestines and reproductive organs -yum!) and the muscle tissue was discarded. However, a recent sunfish food festival promoted eating the meaty muscles of the sharp-tail too, which has led to higher catch rates of this fish (sold at approximately $9 per kg) as a cheap source of protein.

3The IUCN currently lists the species as of ‘Least Concern’, but notes that the impacts of the increasing target fishery should be assessed. Further research efforts might also like to consider genetic analyses for stock assessment, alongside estimation of population size and distribution, (and if I had my way, an investigation into the benefits of that strange tail would also make the list!)

This species is a little strange -even by sunfish standards- but a magnificent fish none the less and I hope to learn more about the sharp-tail in future. If anyone is currently working on these crazy creatures please do get in touch!

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 comments section or via Twitter: @SunfishResearch or email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

The spoils of war! Mass Portuguese Man O’War wash up (*with video!)

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Only last week I was writing about an unusual ocean sunfish stranding in Cornwall, but following directly on its’ (purely proverbial) heels we are now in the midst of a mass stranding of Portuguese Man O’War!! You would be forgiven for thinking these stunning stingers were jellyfish, but in fact they are actually a colony of tiny individual siphonophores that lump together to form one working “individual” that cannot survive without each other.

These amazing creatures divide up the duties of daily life, with cells specialising into one of four differing types:

1) The pneumatophore: these cells form the blue/pink float that acts a buoyancy aid and sail. The float can either be left or right handed, with its fate decided by the wind so if one half of the population runs aground, the other half should be sent back out to safety at sea! Its vague resemblance to an actual warship gives the PMoW its distinctive name.

2) The dactylozooids: these form the long strings of stingy tentacles! Up to 50m long, they trail in the water column providing the colony with plenty of food, trapping fishes with paralysing venom and passing them up to the digestive team. The mechanism for injecting venom is mechanical meaning that even when washed up dead on the beach, it can still sting!

Poking is not recommended (at least not with your fingers) and if stings are unavoidable, don’t use vinegar or fresh water and for goodness sake don’t pee on it! Just like bee and wasp stings are treated differently, jellyfish and siphonophores are different beasties. The best you can hope for is to remove tentacles (carefully) with tweezers and wash well with seawater.

3) The gastrozooids: these cells form bag-like structures under the float to digest prey and distribute the goodies throughout the colony. Yum!

4) The gonozooids: these are the reproductive cells and either male or female for each colony. The gametes are shed into the sea to join with other gametes from other colonies, but the PMoW can also reproduce by asexual budding! Neat.

We believe the sudden influx of these exotic creatures is off the back of the recent hurricanes over in the Western Atlantic so keep your eyes peeled on UK beaches. The photos from Cornwall (more below) show just how many were washing up last week! The pictures also show just how easy it would be for a hungry predator (like a leatherback turtle) to mistake a balloon for a siphonophore or jellyfish…

 

Aside from being fascinating creatures in their own right, I was particularly interested in this happening so close to our stranded sunfish… and I was lucky enough to have some samples posted to me by the Friends of Portheras Cove (a wonderful marine conservation group)! These arrived safe and sound thanks to the lovely Jan and Delia (who also provided these stunning photos) and I was able to prepare and dry samples of each for later stable isotope analysis to see if the sunfish might include them in their diet! Maybe our sunfish was snacking on Man O’War when it stranded… watch this space! To show a little bit of what we do in the labs here at Queen’s University, I made a short silly video (in the style of the ever-popular Tasty recipe mini clips) of this process… so let me know what you think!

In the meantime if you spot a dead sunfish please do get in touch (esp. if you are happy to take a little snip from the fin) or if you have any questions about research, marine life etc. then please drop me a line below in the comments or email me at: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk or tweet me @SunfishResearch

Holiday blog special! Beach combing for bodies: sun, sand… & a stranded sunfish!

Today is a special holiday blog! I know, I know, we’ve all seen so many Instagram perfect pictures of sunny beaches and tropical skies sometimes it’s hard to take as autumn settles in but please bear with me as this holiday involves beach combing for bodies… you’ve guessed it –we had a sunfish stranding!

To cut a long story short, I tried to have a holiday this past week in Cornwall, leaving my sunfishy stuff behind me, locked in the office and not to be thought of at all. But while I was happily munching through mountains of scones with real Cornish clotted cream (yum!) life had other plans… The Cornish Wildlife Trust sent me an email, of all the beaches in all the world, a sunfish had just stranded dead near Newquay, less than 40 minutes from where I was staying!

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Needless to say, I jumped in the car (accompanied by my boyfriend, mum and dog) and headed over to the site where it had last been seen stranded partially up a river estuary. We waited for low tide, expectations low, in case the recent storm surge had dragged it back to sea… but after an hour of searching the sand we spotted a large grey shape! After battling the dog to reach it first, it turned out that the sunfish was in great condition (the birds had only been able to steal the upturned eye and a quick peck at the less armoured ‘openings’ of the fish) so minus a few oozings, it was really fresh. Infact so fresh, that when we cut it open to collect our tissue samples, it still felt warm! Amazing and disgusting all in one, ah the life of a marine biologist.

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I am so grateful for the alert from the Wildlife Trust as although stranded fish like this are a sad sight, they provide vital data for our research. Using our scrambled dissection kit, including my mum’s best steak knife and an old teaspoon (don’t worry we washed them first!) we were able to collect samples of skin, muscle, vertebrae, teeth and the other eye! Yes we tea-spooned out an eyeball, (turns out my mum didn’t want the spoon back so it’s now in my regular dissection kit). Over the last few days I have been preserving these samples for future analyses so please watch this space!

If anyone else spots a dead sunfish please do get in touch and if you are happy to take a little snip from the fin (or any more adventurous samples) then please please drop me a line below in the comments or email me at: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk or tweet me @SunfishResearch

Sunfish in flight! From London to Belfast safe and sound

 

Fishy trivia 1): the slender sunfish

So a few blog posts back, eagle-eyed readers might remember I mentioned plans to write detailed overviews about each sunfish species… but then an entirely new species was discovered, so of course I got carried away with a shiny new sunfish and neglected my original plans! So please accept my apologies and prepare for some sunfish trivia!!

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Today’s star is the slender sunfish, less commonly known as Ranzania laevis. The slender sunfish is a beautiful creature, the colourful cousin of our favourite Mola mola, and easily identified by its more elegant, elongated shape, typically with stunning stripes and spots along the silvery body. The species was first described in 1776 by Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist and explorer whose works influenced other important figures of the time, including Georges Cuvier and Samuel Johnson, who said he was “the best traveller I ever read”. Praise indeed!

The species was later moved to the taxonomic group ‘Ranzania’, which forms a genus all Image result for slender sunfishof its own, named in 1840, after the famous Italian priest and naturalist Camillo Ranzani who was director of the Museum of Natural History in Bologna from 1803 to 1841. As with the other sunfish species, very little is known about the slender sunfish’s life history. It is suggested to occur in subtropical regions, up to 140m deep, with the largest specimen to date reaching 1m in length. The IUCN currently lists the species as of ‘Least Concern’ due to its broad distribution, high abundance in parts of its range and no known major threats. Of course this sounds like great news for Ranzania, but after working with Mola I have learned to be cautious… the extensive bycatch of sunfish species across the world is likely to affect other species and I would be really interested to learn if there is mass bycatch of Ranzania in areas where it is thought to be abundant, (as there is with Molas).

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The IUCN recommends genetic analyses of Ranzania, and after the recent discovery of a third Mola species (with suggested further cryptic species!), I would love to know more about their population genetics to see if the species Ranzania laevis is actually made up of one homologous group, discreet stocks or potentially new species…

As it stands, I believe it is fair to say that this species could benefit from further research, and as I have had a few emails over the last couple of months from keen students looking for advice on interesting sunfish studies… this could be a great place to start!

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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 comments section or via Twitter: @SunfishResearch or email: nphillips01@qub.ac.uk

 

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