Biggest Ocean Sunfish Found in New Zealand Is the First Species of Its Kind Discovered in 130 Years

Giant sunfish found in New Zealand is the first new species discovered in 130 years
An ocean sunfish swims to the surface during the second day of racing in the challenger selection series of the Louis Vuitton Cup in Valencia, Spain, on April 17, 2007. JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images

Updated | Marianne Nyegaard, a postdoctoral student at Australia’s Murdoch University, had been searching for evidence of a fourth ocean sunfish species for nearly five years. In 2014, the researcher finally found one washed up on the shore in New Zealand, marking the first new sunfish species to be identified in 130 years.

Nyegaard and a team of scientists from her university determined four individual species of ocean sunfish back in 2009. DNA samples collected from more than 150 sunfish led the researchers to believe that four distinct species must exist. But skin samples were on record for only three species, leading the researchers to conclude that an undiscovered fourth species was out there somewhere.

The team went ahead and named the species the Hoodwinker, which Nyegaard said in a statement was due to the creature’s elusive nature. They also assigned it a scientific name, Mola tecta, stemming from tectus, the Latin word for "hidden."

“We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time. Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the Hoodwinker,” Nyegaard said.

Nyegaard and her team traveled up and down the Australian coast hoping to find evidence of the fourth sunfish species. It wasn’t until May 2014 that Nyegaard, who was in Perth at the time, was finally able to lay her eyes on an actual Hoodwinker. She'd received a tip from a New England fishery claiming that four massive sunfish had been found stranded in the sand at a beach near Christchurch, New Zealand. She left Australia immediately to take samples of the dead fish.

"When I was asked if I would be bringing my own crane to receive a specimen, I knew I was in for a challenging but awesome adventure," Nyegaard said in a press release.

For the next three years, she traveled thousands of miles across the southern hemisphere in an attempt to find more Hoodwinkers, relying mostly on the help of local museums and fishermen to direct her to sunfish that were found stranded on remote beaches. She collected 27 specimens of the species and finally was able to announce the discovery in a paper published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society on Wednesday.

In her findings, Nyegaard described the Hoodwinker as having a slimmer and sleeker adult body compared to other species of sunfish. Whereas most sunfish develop a protruding snout and a swollen back fin with lumps and bumps along the ridges, the Hoodwinker does not. Known to be the heaviest bony fish in the ocean—sunfish can weigh anywhere from 545 to 2,200 pounds—the Hoodwinker also is significantly larger than its sunfish cousins, weighing about two tons and reaching up to 10 feet in length.

In a recent article for The Conversation, Nyegaard said she hasn’t been able to determine the exact range of the Hoodwinker's habitat. They have been located in parts of the southern hemisphere, including waters near New Zealand, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, South Africa and southern Chile. According to Nyegaard, those locations may indicate that Hoodwinkers prefer colder-water climates. Again, this would be a departure from other sunfish species, which are typically found in temperate and tropical waters.

Sunfish aren’t rare; mentions of the gigantic sea creatures go all the way back to history books written by Pliny the Elder between 77 A.D. and 79 A.D. However, studying sunfish can be particularly challenging because they usually live deep in the ocean. Although they can be spotted at the ocean’s surface with the side of their body facing the sun—hence their name—they spend much of their time in deep water. When they aren’t basking in sunlight, they predominately live about 160 to 650 feet below the ocean’s surface. 

Following the discovery of the Hoodwinker, Nyegaard is hoping to learn more about its breeding habitats and feeding habits.

This story has been updated with corrected information about the depth at which sunfish swim.