The Hoodwinker Sunfish (Mola tecta), the first species of sunfish discovered after more than 100 years, has eluded scientists for nearly three centuries.
Hiding In Plain Sight For Centuries
Finding the giant fish was difficult because it lives a solitary life. It dives to eat in deep parts of the ocean, where people do not typically go.
Marianne Nyegaard, of the Murdoch University in Australia, and colleagues, however, have finally identified and described this new species that they said has been hiding in plain sight for centuries.
"This species does not develop a protruding snout, or swollen dorso- or ventrolateral ridges. Body proportions remain similar with growth," the researchers described the new species in Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
While conducting a DNA analysis of more than 150 skin samples of sunfish, the researchers found that the samples hinted there are four different species of the marine animal. There are only three described species of sunfish though: Masturus lanceolatus, Mola mola, and Mola ramsayi.
About 10 years ago, Japanese researchers found similar genetic evidence of an unknown sunfish species, which backs up the idea that there is an unnamed and unidentified species.
Working With A Network Of People
To know what this new species may look like, Nyegaard used social media to look for pictures of sunfish and build a network of people from New Zealand and Australia who may give an alert whenever a sunfish was observed.
The researchers' efforts were not in vain. Observers from Australia and New Zealand sent Nyegaard pictures of sunfish they found at sea. They also sent samples of sunfish that were collected during patrols, which became the basis for the initial study.
"On one occasion they hauled a tiny fish on board to free it from a fishing line, and got a brilliant photo of the whole thing along with a genetic sample," Nyegaard said. "This fish had a little structure on its back fin that I'd never seen on a sunfish before."
Confirming Hoodwinker As New Species Of Sunfish
By examining stranded specimens, pictures, museum collections, and genetic evidence, the researchers were finally able to describe the previously undescribed species of sunfish.
"The process we had to go through to confirm its new species status included consulting publications from as far back as the 1500s, some of which also included descriptions of mermen and fantastical sea monsters," Nyegaard said. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time."