Tue, Mar 05, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Sunfish spotted in northern waters, first time in 130 years

BEACH DISCOVERY:The 2m hoodwinker sunfish not only baffled California locals, but also surprised the scientist who named the species just a few years ago

The Guardian

A giant sunfish has washed up on a beach in California, the first time this particular species of the animal has been sighted in the northern hemisphere in 130 years.

The sunfish measuring 2.05m and weighing several hundred kilograms was found on the beach of the Coal Oil Point Reserve in Santa Barbara, California.

Staff at the reserve posted photographs of the enormous fish on social media, incorrectly but understandably identifying it as an ocean sunfish (Mola mola), which is commonly found in seas off the US.

Instead, it was something more remarkable, a hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta), a rare species that was first spotted in 2014 by a Danish doctoral student working in New Zealand, and formally identified in 2017.

“We don’t really know much about it,” said Marianne Nyegaard, associate researcher at Auckland War Memorial Museum, who discovered and named the new species, and was able to inform the California team that they had a hoodwinker on their hands.

With the exception of one documented sighting off the Netherlands in 1889, the hoodwinker has only ever been spotted in southern hemisphere waters, off New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru.

“That’s as far north as I have seen it, that corresponds to a cold water current,” she said. “For this fish to suddenly rock up in California is really exciting.”

It can be difficult to identify the different species of sunfish — which is why it took so long for the hoodwinker to be classified as a separate species.

As a result, when Nyegaard was sent the Facebook post from the reserve, she had her doubts.

However, after asking staff from the reserve to go out and take more pictures of the features that distinguish a hoodwinker sunfish from an ocean sunfish, it was clear that this was a hoodwinker.

“When the pictures came through, they were so so clear, I just could not believe it, it was a mix of disbelief and excitement,” Nyegaard said.

As to why this particular fish made its way so far north, that is unclear, she said.

“It could just be a lost sunfish, or it could be we don’t understand the distribution yet,” she said. Then of course there is the whole issue around climate change.”

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