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In mid-February, a massive fish was found washed up on the beach in Santa Barbara County. Its distinct ovular shape and large size might have been enough to arouse excitement in ichthyologists (fish biologists) and passersby, but thanks to the collaborative efforts of a few passionate people, researchers and science enthusiasts are excited for a whole new reason—it was the first-ever sighting of a hoodwinker fish in the Northern Hemisphere!

Staff from UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve were among the first to observe the enormous, strange-looking hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) after the tide transported it from the ocean to Southern California’s sandy shore.  Jessica Nielsen, a conservation specialist on staff at Coal Oil Point, described the 7-foot sunfish as “the most remarkable organism I have seen wash up on the beach in my four years at the reserve.” The discovery, made on February 19th, is impressive considering that a hoodwinker fish has never before been observed in the Northern Hemisphere, let alone in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Shortly after the find, Nielsen posted photographs of the enormous fish, initially assumed to be an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) and commonly found in waters off of Southern California’s coast, on her social media account. When UC Santa Barbara associate professor Dr. Thomas Turner saw the post he grabbed his camera and headed to the beach with his family to get a closer look at the fish. After posting his photographs (see images below) on an online community for scientists called iNaturalist,  he caught the attention of two fish scientists living on the other side of the planet— Sunfish expert Mariana Nyegaard, of Murdoch University in Australia and ichthyologist Ralph Foster, of South Australian Museum— who thought that the fish might actually be a hoodwinker.

Photo of the Mola mola in Goleta. Photo by Dr. Thomas Turner.

Though the hoodwinker fish was first discovered by a Danish Ph.D. student working on a New Zealand beach in 2014, it was not named or described until 2017. The researcher who named the elusive fish the hoodwinker was none other than Dr. Mariana Nyegaard— the same Dr. Nyegaard who caught wind of the giant fish found in Santa Barbara County.

“I thought that the fish surely looked an awful lot like a hoodwinker, but frustratingly, none of the many photos showed the clavus (a diagnostic feature) clearly,” Nyegaard explained in an email to Shelly Leachman, a writer for The Current, a UC Santa Barbara publication.

Though oceans apart, Nielsen, Dr. Turner, Nyegaard, and Foster worked together to confirm the identity of the beached sunfish. Returning to the spot of the original sighting, Nielsen and Dr. Turner searched for the fish which had been washed further down the shoreline and collected tissue samples and more detailed photographs of defining anatomical features like the definition of the spines — or ossicles — at the tail, a chief identifying characteristic of Mola tecta. Once researchers in Australia received the images and samples, they were able to determine with clarity that the fish in question was indeed a hoodwinker. 

Whether this was the first time that a hoodwinker has been in this area or just the first time that we have noticed is unknown. Researchers like Nyegaard who have dedicated their lives to these majestic creatures now have the opportunity to find out more.

“It’s the most unusual fish you’ve ever seen,” said UC Santa Barbara associate professor, Dr. Thomas Turner. “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.” – CNN News Report; Photo credit: Dr. Thomas Turner.

The Mola: Hoodwinkers and Ocean Sunfish

The mola is the heaviest of all the bony fish, reaching up to 5,000 pounds when fully grown! These gigantic fish are known as clumsy swimmers, but they can’t help it— when it comes to fish, both molas are oddly shaped.  Their large, flat bullet-shaped bodies are the result of a backfin which folds into itself and creates a rudder (called a clavus) as the growing fish mature.  Their dorsal fins are sizeable, so much so that when a sunfish breaches the surface it can easily be mistaken for a shark. Their teeth, however, are more bird-like than shark-like as they are fused into a structure similar to a beak that makes it difficult for molas to close their mouths. Since they survive on a diet of jellyfish, zooplankton and other small fish, they don’t need as many teeth as other marine carnivores. The mola inhabits temperate and tropical oceans around the world and is often seen near the water’s surface. While they spend time basking in the rays of the sun, they will also breach in an attempt to remove parasites that attach to their rough skin. Because they spend much of their time near the surface, sunfish and hoodwinkers are part of a vulnerable population that frequently gets snagged in nets or suffocated by trashbags floating in the sea. It’s for creatures like the mola that we need to double down on our efforts to lessen our dependence on single-use plastics!

“It’s the most unusual fish you’ve ever seen,” said UC Santa Barbara associate professor, Dr. Thomas Turner. “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.” – CNN News Report; Photo credit: Dr. Thomas Turner.

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