School’s in for sunfish science

On Monday morning 30 students from Brooklyn school huddled around a table in Te Papa’s fish lab. They were here to get a rare glimpse of a very rare fish – a sharp-tail sunfish. While the fish was still hidden under a wet sheet that was part of the defrosting process, scientist Andrew Stewart provided some facts about the sunfish before pulling the sheet away to reveal the amazing creature.

Sunfish defrosting under a sheet and running water. Photographer: Gwynn Compton © Te Papa

Sunfish defrosting under a sheet and running water. Photographer: Gwynn Compton © Te Papa

A collective gasp of amazement was accompanied by comments such as “whoa it’s huge!” and “that’s a BIG fish”. Clearly the students were impressed by the size of the fish – that was until they were told that common sunfish can get to 3.2m long and weigh over two tonnes! (Our sharp-tail specimen is 2.1m long and weighs 230kg)

Students from Brooklyn School were impressed by the size of the sunfish. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Students from Brooklyn School were impressed by the size of the sunfish. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Andrew explained how Te Papa had acquired the specimen (a donation from Auckland Museum) before scraping a parasitic flatworm off the skin of the fish and gave the students a close look at the little disk shaped creature. The students’ reaction could be best described as a mixture of disgust and curiosity with a splash of awe.

Students from Brooklyn School get up close to parasitic flatworm taken from the skin of the sunfish. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Students from Brooklyn School get up close to parasitic flatworm taken from the skin of the sunfish. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

The students then peppered Andrew with a barrage of questions (clearly some future scientists amongst this group). Questions such as “is it a boy or a girl?” (we don’t yet know) and “What eats sunfish?” (Lots of things when they are small and toothed whales and sharks when they are big).

Hands-on sunfish science. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Hands-on sunfish science. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

After more questions, one brave boy ventured in very close to the underside of the fish and pointed out a particular feature and asked “what’s this”? “That”, replied Andrew, “is its bum”. While the class chuckled, the brave boy very quickly retreated away from the orifice in question!

The underside of the sunfish, with the 'bum' visible just next to the fin. Photographer: Gwynn Compton © Te Papa

The underside of the sunfish, with the ‘bum’ visible just next to the fin. Photographer: Gwynn Compton © Te Papa

A closer look at the anus taken during the autopsy the following day. Photographer: Jean-Claude Stahl © Te Papa

A closer look at the anus taken during the autopsy the following day. Photographer: Jean-Claude Stahl © Te Papa

Many more photos were taken before the students were led down into one of our collection stores to see a model of a near full-sized common sunfish. After marvelling at the immense size of the fish they then learned that the sunfish diet consists almost entirely of jellies. Furthermore they were told that plastic rubbish in the ocean looks a lot like jelly and is often eaten by the huge fish – and can often kill them.

Many for the students were fascinated by the bear skeleton in Te Papa’s vertebrate’s collection. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Many for the students were fascinated by the bear skeleton in Te Papa’s vertebrate’s collection. Photographer: Scott Ogilvie © Te Papa

Before leaving the store the class was able to look around at some of the other specimens in the collection – a bear skeleton, numerous mounted dear and elk heads, some whale bones and a life-sized model of a giant squid.

When it was time to leave, a careful headcount was done to ensure no children were locked in the store for their own Night at the Museum experience. Then it was back upstairs for a final Q & A session and the students were out the door and back to school.

Enter our competition to name the sunfish and your class could win a chance to visit our Natural Environment collection too!

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