New sunfish discovered

Sunfishes (family Molidae) are large, distinctive, oceanic fishes found worldwide. Scientists generally agree there are two species of sunfish – the oceanic sunfish (Mola mola) and the bump-headed or short sunfish (Mola ramsayi). However, recent DNA analyses of sunfish samples collected and sequenced overseas has indicated the presence of a third, undescribed, and previously unknown species of Mola.

Sunfishes are rare in most museum collections because of their large size and oceanic pelagic habitat. Adults grow to over 2 tonnes in weight and attain lengths of over 3 m, making them the heaviest living bony fishes. When present in museums, specimens are usually represented by small, beach-cast juveniles, or plaster casts and old mounted skins.

Through our fishing networks and New Zealand’s MPI Scientific Observer Programme, Te Papa has one of the largest collections of sunfish in the world, comprising 31 specimens including a 2 m long 234 kg individual.

Visiting scientists, Dr Etsuro Sawai (Hiroshima University, Japan, post-doctoral researcher and Te Papa visiting scientist) and Marianne Nyegaard (Murdoch University, Western Australia), are currently examining our preserved sunfish collection in order to formally describe this new species. A recently donated 53 kg specimen will be the name-holding holotype specimen.

Marianne Nyegaard, Andrew Stewart and Te Papa intern Etsuro Suwai measuring a specimen of the new sunfish. (Photo Salme Kortet, Te Papa).

Marianne Nyegaard, Andrew Stewart and Te Papa intern Etsuro Suwai measuring a specimen of the new sunfish. (Photo Salme Kortet, Te Papa).

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