Despite being incredibly massive, sunfish are elusive.
That's why an international team of researchers was so thrilled when they uncovered a new sunfish species after a four-year search. The previously undescribed species has been dubbed the hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta). It's the first species of this type of sunfish to be discovered in 130 years.
"The new species managed to evade discovery for nearly three centuries by ‘hiding' in a messy history of sunfish taxonomy, partially because they are so difficult to preserve and study, even for natural history museums," said Marianne Nyegaard, a Ph.D. student from Murdoch University in Western Australia, who led the research team.
"That is why we named it Mola tecta (the Hoodwinker Sunfish), derived from the Latin tectus, meaning disguised or hidden."
Ocean sunfishes are the heaviest of all bony fishes, with some weighing more than two tons. The hoodwinker is thought to be about that big.
Nyegaard analyzed more than 150 DNA samples from sunfish and found there were four species, according to National Geographic, but realized only three had been identified. That led her to believe there was one more out there, so she set out to find it.
"Finding these fish and storing specimens for studies is a logistical nightmare due to their elusive nature and enormous size, so sunfish research is difficult at the best of times," she said, in a statement. "Early on, 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 traveled thousands of miles over several years, collecting data from thousands of specimens found stranded on remote beaches. Her research was published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
“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," she said.
"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."
Unlike its sister species, Mola mola and Mola ramsayi, the new species is sleek and slender without a protruding snout, or huge lumps and bumps. It seems to prefer cold water and has been found so far around New Zealand, the southeast coast of Australia, off South Africa and southern Chile.