Posted on: March 6, 2019 at 12:16 pm
Last updated: March 14, 2019 at 9:16 am

A seven-foot fish was discovered on the shores of UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve in Southern California, a world away from where it normally lives. The fish, which was originally named the Hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tectaby marine scientist, Marianne Nyegaard, was discovered in 2014 off the coast of Christchurch, New Zealand [1]. It was the newest species of sunfish to be discovered in over 130 years [1].  All recent sightings of this fish have been in regions around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile.


The first of its kind in North America.

Saltwater sunfish are a class of fish that are extra large, deep-bodied and are mostly found in warm oceans. They are known to be among the heaviest known bony fish in the world. The Hoodwinker was initially assumed to belong to a more common saltwater species, the ocean sunfish (Mola mola). Though once its appearance went viral, that all changed. Scientists and marine experts went to work identifying the fish, and it was found to be the Hoodwinker, a species never seen before in North America.


Discovery of the fish

Jessica Nielsen, a conservation specialist was informed by an intern at the Reserve when the fish washed up dead on the shores. The fish had strikingly unusual, and it was worth looking into.

“This is certainly the most remarkable organism I have seen wash up on the beach in my four years at the reserve,” Nielsen said in a press release organized by the University.

“It’s the most unusual fish you’ve ever seen,” said Thomas Turner, evolutionary biologist and associate professor at UCSB. “It has no tail. All of its teeth are fused, so it doesn’t have any teeth. It’s just got this big round opening for a mouth.”

He saw the Hoodwinker for the first time on Nielsen’s Facebook page that same day. With his wife and son, he came down to the beach. They took pictures with the terrifyingly huge fish. One of the pictures shows Turner stretching out his arms over it to portray the large size. He thought it was an ocean sunfish, but of course, it turned out to be a never-seen-before cousin.


Scientists get to work identifying the fish

Ralph Foster, a fish scientist and the fish curator at the South Australian Museum, came across pictures of the fish on iNaturalist [2]. After going through it, he decided that it might be a Hoodwinker after all. It had distinctive features from the ocean sunfish, which a lot of people were already ruling it to be.

He contacted Marianne Nyegaard, the scientist who discovered the fish and named it in 2017. Nyegaard is a marine scientist who works at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand.

In an interview with CNN, Nyegaard explained how she was initially skeptical about giving her verdict because the pictures weren’t much to go by [3].

“He (Foster) sent me an email with links and said, ‘Do you reckon this is a hoodwinker?’” Nyegaard said. “But the pictures weren’t very clear. I was reluctant to settle on an identification because it was so far out of range.”

When Nielsen and Foster uploaded better pictures of the fish captured from all angles, the scientists knew this wasn’t any ordinary ocean sunfish. More researchers lent their hands, and workable measurements of the fish were taken. All sunfish have a rudder-like structure at the rear where the tail is supposed to be. It’s called the clavus. The Hoodwinker has a clavus that’s different from that of other sunfish. After examining the scale and bone structures of the fish, Nyegaard knew her Hoodwinker was the real deal.

When the clear pictures came through, I thought there was no doubt. This is totally a Hoodwinker,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I nearly fell out of my chair.”

Unlike other species of saltwater sunfish that thrive in warmer waters, the Hoodwinker prefers temperate waters.  

“This is why it’s so intriguing why it has turned up in California,” Nyegaard said. “We know it has the temperate distribution around here and off the coast of Chile, but then how did it cross the equator and turn up by you guys? It’s intriguing what made this fish cross the equator.”

On how it got its name and where it could have come from

After the recent sighting of the Hoodwinker, Nyegaard realized they’d been misidentifying and mixing up the sunfish species. Also, she’d decided to name it ‘Hoodwinker’ because the fish really had them all by their collars. Its tricky behavior and ability to make its way through across the world was astounding.

It had gone unnoticed because no one really realized it looked different,” she said. “There’s a long history of confusion about the species in the sunfish family. This fish had managed to stay out of sight and out of everybody’s attention. It had been taken for mola mola (an ocean sunfish) so it was hoodwinking us all.”

The scientists aren’t sure why the Hoodwinker washed up in CA. For all they know, it could be part of an undiscovered North American breed or a lonely swimmer from the shores of Australia. Nyegaard plans on running comparison tests with samples of the fish found in CA and the ones found in Australia and her homestead, New Zealand.

“It’s not uncommon for sunfish to wander really far,” Nyegaard said. “In the future, we will understand whether this fish occurs regularly off the coast of California or whether this is a one-off.

Expressing her gratitude to the creators of iNaturalist, Nyegaard said, “iNaturalist is brilliant because we can log the sightings and learn more about (the fish’s) distribution,” Nyegaard said. “We are living in a changing world and it’s important for scientists to get input from everybody in what they see because we can’t be out in the field every day all over the world.”

iNaturalist is an online social network of scientists, biologists, researchers, and naturalists from all around the globe. They share observations, pictures and discoveries of living organisms to foster biodiversity without having to be everywhere physically. Other people who aren’t in these fields can also upload pictures of unseen animals and species to be identified or categorized.

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