A team of researchers discovered a new species of sunfish in Australia. The new species is particularly elusive and had never been spotted before. It had been more than 130 years since a new species of ocean sunfish was identified.

The ocean sunfish is massive: it weighs about two tons and can grow up to nine feet (2.7 meters), making it the largest bony fish in the world.

Image credit: Reuters / Tony Gentile / IB Times
Image credit: Reuters / Tony Gentile / IB Times

The researchers who made the discovery spent over four years looking for the elusive fish. The international team of researchers was led by Marianne Nyegaard, a Ph.D. student from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences at Murdoch University in Australia. Their findings were published July 19 in the Zoological Journal

New massive sunfish species eluded scientists for decades

The research team analyzed over 150 sunfish DNA samples and found four particular species, three of which had already been identified previously. That finding led Nyegaard to believe an elusive ocean sunfish had not been identified, thus marking the four-year-long quest to find it.

“A Japanese research team first found genetic evidence of an unknown sunfish species in Australian waters 10 years ago, but the fish kept eluding the scientific community because we didn’t know what it looked like,” said Nyegaard, according to a press release from Murdoch University.

The new species found while researching the population genetics of sunfish in the Indo-pacific region was dubbed the Hoodwinker Sunfish (Mola tecta). The “tecta” comes from the Latin word “tectus,” which means hidden or disguised.

Nyegaard started working to find the sunfish in 2013. In 2014, she got a tip from a New Zealand fishery that four unidentified sunfish had appeared on a beach in Christchurch. She flew down to New Zealand to see the evidence and confirmed the dead fish was the unknown sunfish specimen they had been looking for.

The new species found was dubbed the Hoodwinker Sunfish (Mola tecta). Image credit: Murdoch University / The Conversation
The new species found was dubbed the Hoodwinker Sunfish (Mola tecta). Image credit: Murdoch University / The Conversation

Hoodwinker sunfish gets its name because of its ‘cheeky’ and elusive personality

Nyegaard sent the samples to researchers around the world who analyzed them and confirmed it was a new species of sunfish. They also noted the new species was different from other known sunfish.

“The new species managed to evade discovery for nearly three centuries by ‘hiding’ in a messy history of sunfish taxonomy, partially because they are so difficult to preserve and study, even for natural history museums,” said Nyegaard.

In the new paper, the researchers explained the hoodwinker sunfish has a sleeker and slimmer adult body shape and, as opposed to other sunfish, it doesn’t develop lumps, bumps, or a snout.

Nyegaard noted the hoodwinker is the first addition to the sunfish family in 130 years. To confirm the finding, the researchers had to consult publications from as far back as the 1500s. Nyegaard said those publications even included descriptions of “mermen and fantastical sea monsters.”

Image credit: Facebook / Indiatoday.intoday.in
Image credit: Facebook / Indiatoday.intoday.in

In an article she wrote for The Conversation, she said they found hoodwinker sunfish in colder parts of the southern hemisphere, including New Zealand, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales (Australia), South Africa and in the south of Chile.

“We’ve retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time,” said Nyegaard. “Overall we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the Hoodwinker.”

Hoodwinkers are the most distinctive sunfish because they don’t have lumps and bumps

The researchers said the hoodwinker sunfish probably feeds during deep dives. Nyegaard analyzed the digestive tract contents of three specimens and found it consisted mostly of salps, a gelatinous sea creature that resembles a jellyfish.

Its massive size allows hoodwinker sunfish to maintain body temperature when it dives deep into the ocean to feed. Plus, its shape –which could resemble a buoy- allows the fish to quickly swim back to the surface of the ocean to warm up.

Nyegaard noted it took an enormous effort to find and identify the hoodwinker. The researchers at Murdoch University worked alongside two sunfish experts from the University of Tokyo and the University of Hiroshima, as well as geneticists from the Gemmell Lab at the University of Otago and taxonomists from the Wellington Museum Te Papa Tongarewa.

Ocean sunfish are one of the most elusive and strange creatures in the sea. Nyegaard said they aren’t rare, but itis difficult for scientists to study them because they live in parts of the ocean hard to reach for most humans. They are also known as the common mola, and they’re characterized by their truncated body, which makes them look like only half a fish. Other mola species are difficult to tell apart, but the hoodwinker sets apart from other sunfish because it doesn’t have snout, lumps, and bumps.

Source: Murdoch University