Animal Species:Ocean Sunfish, Mola mola (Linnaeus, 1758)
The Ocean Sunfish is an unusual looking fish. It doesn't have a caudal fin, instead it has a clavus, which is formed by extensions of the dorsal and anal fin rays, often making it as tall as it is long.
Standard Common Name
The Ocean Sunfish is an unusual looking fish. It doesn't have a caudal fin. Instead it has a clavus, which is formed by extensions of the dorsal and anal fin rays. These take the place of a true tail fin which does not form. The clavus is broadly rounded and has low, rounded projections (called ossicles) which make up the margin.
The teeth in each jaw are fused to form a plate, and the mouth is small in comparison to the body size.
Characters that help separate the species from the other four members of the family are the number of ossicles and the presence of a definite line at the posterior end of the body where the denticles on the skin change from extremely coarse to very fine. The clavus (tail frill) of the Ocean Sunfish has 12 fin rays. This is one of the characters that separate it from the other Australian species in the genus, Mola ramsayi, which has 16 fin rays.
The name Mola comes from the Latin word for millstone and refers to the rounded shape of the fish.
It grows to at least 3.3 m in total length but possibly as large as 4 m.
The Ocean Sunfish occurs in temperate marine waters worldwide.
In Australia, it has been recorded from the central coast of New South Wales to Tasmania and west to Mandurah, Western Australia.
The Ocean Sunfish belongs to the family Molidae and is one of three species recorded from New South Wales waters. The other two are the Southern Ocean Sunfish, Mola ramsayi, and the Slender Sunfish, Ranzania laevis. The fourth Australian species is the Sharptail Sunfish, Masturus lanceolatus. It occurs in southern waters of South Australia and Western Australia.
The map below shows the Australian distribution of the species based on public sightings and specimens in Australian Museums. Click on the map for detailed information. Source: Atlas of Living Australia.
Distribution by collection data
Ocean Sunfish are usually found in oceanic waters, but occasionally come inshore. Sunfishes in general are often seen at the surface where they may be mistaken for sharks, because of the large dorsal fin.
In their 2010 paper (see References, below) on Mola mola in the north-west Atlantic, Potter and Howell stated that "There was no observed relationship between the amount of time per day that fish spent in cold water (<10 °C) and the amount of time fish spent near the surface (0–6 m), indicating a lack of evidence for M. mola basking at the surface as a mechanism for behavioral thermoregulation." They also stated that "Fish spent greater than 30% of their time in the top 10 m of the water column, and over 80% of time in the top 200 m. The maximum depth recorded by any fish was 844 m."
Feeding and Diet
Ocean Sunfish feed on jellyfish, salps, ctenophores and occassionally small crustaceans and fishes. Recent research states that they feed on hydrozonans ("which are small groups of predatory animals related to jellyfish"). The research sheds light on sunfish feeding behaviour, which may also explain why they bask in the sun on the surface.
Other behaviours and adaptations
Larval ocean sunfish look quite different to adults.
At 2 mm long, Ocean Sunfish larva have a broad body shape. At this small size the Ocean Sunfish has a primordial tail fin, large pectoral fins and body spines. The spines are proportionally large up until a body length of at least 10 mm. At this size, an Ocean Sunfish looks less like the adult fish and more like the pufferfishes and boxfishes to which it is related.
By 2.7 mm long, the spiny body is more compressed than a 2 mm larva but still less compressed than older fish.
By 35 mm in length, the body spines are much less prominent, the body is deeper and more compressed, and the beak-like teeth and clavus have developed. The adult Ocean Sunfish has no visible spines.
Mating and reproduction
Sunfishes are amazingly fecund fishes. A single adult female can produce up to 300 million tiny buoyant eggs. Fertilization occurs when eggs and sperm are shed into the water.
Predators, Parasites and Diseases
Numerous internal and external parasites were found in the September 11, 2002 autopsy. These sea lice Lepeophtheirus nordmanni are on the fish's tongue in the image.
Sunfishes are harmless to people.
In some areas, the Ocean Sunfish is a commercial species that is caught for human consumption.
On 13th October 1998, staff of the Australian Museum were called to examine an Ocean Sunfish, that was found stuck on the bulbous bow of the cement carrier, MV Goliath, as it tied up to the wharf in Sydney (top image). The huge fish, which weighed approximately 1400 kg was removed from the bow of the ship by the Sydney Waterways Authority. The fish became stuck on the bow off Jervis Bay, New South Wales. It caused the speed of the ship to slow from 14 to 11 knots. The skin of the Ocean Sunfish was so rough it wore the ship's paint work back to the bare metal. The fish measured 3.1 m from the tip of the dorsal fin to the tip of the anal fin, and 2.5 m from the tip of the snout to the end of the clavus. Skin samples were taken from above the pectoral fin and near the tail. These are registered in the Australian Museum Ichthyology Collection as AMS I.38997-001 and AMS I.38997-002.
On September 11, 2002, a 1.8 m long Ocean Sunfish Mola mola washed up on Narrabeen Beach, northern Sydney, New South Wales. A team from National Parks and Taronga Zoo euthanased the dying fish and took it to the zoo for autopsy. The autopsy report stated that the fish was dying of starvation. The images were taken during the autopsy by Australian Museum Staff member Kerryn Parkinson. A range of tissue samples from the fish are now stored in the Australian Museum Fish Collection as AMS I.41536.
These Sunfish often meet their end by being struck by a ship. On 18 September 1908, the Steamer Fiona, was 65 km from Sydney when it suffered a ‘violent concussion’. A boat was lowered over the side and the men onboard saw a Sunfish jammed in the framework of the port propeller. The fish was the largest known at the time, measuring ’10 feet, 2 inches’ (3.1 m) in length and ’13 feet, 4 inches’ (4.1 m) in height.
View the Mola mola disection on Flickr.
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- Martin, F.D. & G.E. Drewry. 1978. Development of Fishes of the Mid-Atlantic Bight. An Atlas of Egg, Larval and Juvenile Stages. Vol. VI. Stromateidae through Ogcocephalidae. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. FWS/OBS-78/12. Pp. 1- 416.
- Matsuura, K. & J.C. Tyler. Triggerfishes and their allies. in Paxton, J.R. & W.N. Eschmeyer (Eds). 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Sydney: New South Wales University Press; San Diego: Academic Press. Pp. 240.
- Paulin, C., Stewart, A., Roberts, C. & P. McMillan. 1989. New Zealand Fishes. A Complete Guide. National Museum of New Zealand. Pp. 279.
- Pope, E.C et al. 2010 The biology and ecology of the ocean sunfish Mola mola: a review of current knowledge and future research perspectives. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. 20(4): 471-487, DOI: 10.1007/s11160-009-9155-9.
- Potter, I.F & W.H. Howell, 2010. Vertical movement and behavior of the ocean sunfish, Mola mola, in the northwest Atlantic. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 396(2): 138-146.
- Reuvens, C.L. 1894. Remarks on the genus Orthragoriscus. Notes Leyden Mus. 16:128-130, pl. 5.
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- Stead, D.G. 1933. Giants and Pigmies of the Deep. A story of Australian Denizens. Shakespear Head Australian Nature Books. Pp. 108.
- Stewart, A. 1997. Sunfishes - sculling superfish. Seafood New Zealand. June: 89-91.
- Tortonese, E. 1956. Plectognathi in Fauna E Flora del Golfo di Napoli. Monograpfia 38: Uova, Larvae e Stadi Giovanili de Teleostei. "Monografi elaborata con l'uso del materiale raccolto e seriato da Salvatore Lo Bianco" Part 3B. pp.457-1064, pl. XXXVI-LI. [in Italian]
- Watson W. 1996. Molidae. in The Early Stages of Fishes in the California Current Region, Pp. 1439-1441. Moser, H.G. (Ed.). CalCOFI Atlas No. 33.
Mark McGrouther , Collection Manager, Ichthyology