Rare Sunfish Washes up on Santa Barbara County Beach, Marking 1st Sighting in Northern Hemisphere

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For the first time ever, a hoodwinker sunfish was observed in the Northern Hemisphere when it recently washed up in Santa Barbara County, researchers announced Wednesday.

The hoodwinker sunfish is seen in a photo released by UC Santa Barbara.
The hoodwinker sunfish is seen in a photo released by UC Santa Barbara.

The Mola tecta washed up about a week ago at UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve along Sands Beach in Goleta, the university said in a news release, describing it as one of those “out-of-nowhere, first-ever discoveries that send scientists’ hearts aflutter.”

Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia, who was the first to describe the rare species in 2017, made the official determination that the fish was a Mola tecta, the release stated.

“It really was exciting to collect the photos and samples knowing that it could potentially be such an extraordinary sighting,” said Jessica Nielsen, a conservation specialist at Coal Oil Point who was among the first to see the deceased fish. “This is certainly the most remarkable organism I have seen wash up on the beach in my four years at the reserve.”

Nielsen was first alerted to the stranded sunfish by an intern. At first, she thought the creature was a mola mola, an ocean sunfish known to inhabit the Santa Barbara Channel. She took measurements and photos, then posted about it on the reserve’s Facebook page last Friday.

The post piqued the interest of Thomas Turner, an associate professor in UC Santa Barbara’s ecology, evolution and marine biology department, who went down to the beach to take a look at the fish.

He snapped some photos and put them on iNaturalist, an online community for scientists that is sometimes used to crowd-source species identification, according to the release.

That caught the attention of two scientists from the other side of the globe: Nyegaard and her frequent collaborator, ichthyologist Ralph Foster of South Australian Museum.

The two believed the species pictured was possibly a hoodwinker, according to the release. But first, they needed definitive proof.

“I thought that the fish surely looked an awful lot like a hoodwinker, but frustratingly, none of the many photos showed the clavus (a diagnostic feature) clearly,” Nyegaard said, according to the release. “And with a fish so far out of range, I was extremely reluctant to call it a hoodwinker without clear and unambiguous evidence of its identity.”

Nyegaard requested better photos as well as tissue samples — something Nielsen and Turner “were only too happy” to provide, the release read.

The two went back down to the beach, and stood at opposite ends of it, about two miles apart. After low tide came, they walked toward each other.

“We met in the middle, at the fish, now a few hundred yards farther east,” Turner said. “Jessica took a fin sample to send to Marianne for DNA, and I took pictures of the field marks.”

When Nyegaard saw the photos, she said she “nearly fell off my chair.”

She determined the creature she was looking at was indeed a hoodwinker sunfish.

“A huge amount of extremely clear photos was in my inbox and there was just no doubt of the ID,” Nyegaard said.

The tissue sample further confirmed it, she added.

It is still, however, not clear how the Mola tecta ended up along California’s Central Coast when the fish’s known range is confined to the Southern Hemisphere.

The discovery, however, likely wouldn’t have been possible without such a far-reaching collaboration, according to Cris Sandoval, the Coal Oil Point Reserve’s director.

“Without attentive eyes, camera phones and social media, the Australian ichthyologists would have never learned that this fish had just been seen for the first time in the Northern Hemisphere,” Sandoval said. “This type of crowd-sourced science is helping biologists map species in ways we could not have imagined just a few years ago.”

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