Wildlife experts were both shocked and confused last week when a massive and unidentified fish measuring nearly seven feet in length had washed ashore at UC Santa Barbara’s Coal Oil Point Reserve. Fortunately, a closer examination of the specimen helped scientists identify it as Mola tecta, or more colloquially called the hoodwinker sunfish.
Image Credit: Coal Oil Plant Reserve/Facebook
Albeit not uncommon for fish and other large marine animals to become stranded on beaches, researchers admit that it was indeed unusual to see a hoodwinker sunfish on one of California’s beaches. This species of sunfish is understood to live in the Earth’s Southern hemisphere, but the state of California resides somewhat far above the equator – thousands of miles North of where the species is thought to exist.
According to a statement released on Facebook by the Coal Oil Plant Reserve, the circumstances are exceptionally intriguing because this is the first official record of a hoodwinker sunfish being observed anywhere in the Northern hemisphere.
"When the clear pictures came through, I thought there was no doubt. This is totally a hoodwinker," explained Marianne Nyegaard, the marine scientist credited with discovering the species. "I couldn't believe it. I nearly fell out of my chair."
"We know it has the temperate distribution around here and off the coast of Chile, but then how did it cross the equator and turn up by you guys? It's intriguing what made this fish cross the equator."
All other confirmed sightings of the hoodwinker sunfish purportedly transpired far below the equator; such as off the coast of Chile in South America and off the coast of New Zealand, just Southeast of Australia. Other species of sunfish are known to reside in other parts of the world, but they tend to stay within their comfort zones without wandering too far.
The reason why this particular hoodwinker sunfish meandered so far away from its purported home remains to be seen, but scientists are actively investigating the matter. It’s possible that the fish just got lost, but alternative explanations, including climate change-induced temperature shifts, may have more sinister implications about the unusual situation.
For now, scientists have collected biological samples of the washed-up hoodwinker sunfish in case anything similar ever happens again; this should make quicker work of identifying any mystery fish that wash up in the future.