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Fun 'n Funky Science Finds on Oregon Coast: Mola Mola and Salmon Shark

Published 09/21/21 at 5:36 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Fun 'n Funky Science Finds on Oregon Coast: Mola Mola and Salmon Shark

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(Seaside, Oregon) - ‘Tis the season for stuff to wash up on the Oregon coast with increasing frequency. Case in point: Seaside Aquarium encountered a couple of curiosities recently, with a Mola mola winding up in the Columbia River and a salmon shark near Cannon Beach. (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium. Above: Mola mola at left, salmon shark at right)

Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium said there were actually two Mola molas found – often known as ocean sunfish. The other was at Manzanita this weekend. Though they inhabit the waters off the Oregon coast they don't normally wash up on these shores. In fact, they tend to stay even farther out in summer, so it's always at least a little exciting for marine experts to find these.

“Not exactly something you find everyday along the Columbia River,” Boothe said. “This six-foot Mola mola was brought up river by yesterday's high tide. These gentle giants can reach at least 8.9 feet in length and weigh over 5,000 pounds.”

Finding a Sunfish up the river is unusual, however.

A clearer view of a Mola mola, found in recent years (Seaside Aquarium)

Monday the aquarium received a report of a four-foot salmon shark at Arch Cape. They're of great interest to scientists because these bodies provide means of study, and beachcombers find them fascinating as well.

“The little shark had died before washing in,” Boothe said. “Luckily, it was still in great condition and we were able to recover the shark. It will be dissected by a local school group and samples will be taken to help scientists learn more about these amazing creatures.”

These guys are often mistaken for Great Whites, but they're a harmless shark. In fact, juveniles of the species periodically wash up in summer and fall, so keep a look out on the coast right now for more. While they are the most common shark species to wash up on the Oregon and Washington coast, the interesting part is that people often think they're the big, fierce Great White – but it's not.

“With an average length of seven feet and weighing in at 300 pounds, mature salmon sharks are quick enough to catch salmon, birds, squid and herring,” Boothe said. “With grey bodies and white bellies salmon sharks are often mistaken for the Great White, but major differences in size, diet, and teeth patterns set the salmon sharks apart. Salmon shark teeth are notably pointed and smooth while white shark teeth are triangular and serrated.”

Boothe said there has never been a known case of a salmon shark biting a human.

They're named because of their preference for eating salmon.

“Salmon sharks give live birth to 2-4 pups off the southern Oregon coast in the spring and the juveniles follow ocean currents and prey,” Boothe said. “While this species is able to thermoregulate (control their body temperature up to 15 degrees Celsius above surrounding water temperature) and navigate vertically throughout the water column, some juveniles end up outside their ideal temperature range and are unable to thrive.”

Boothe – along with other coastal experts - note people often get concerned when things start washing up on the Washington coast or Oregon coast, but it's just the natural cycle of life coupled with the fact we just had a sizable storm offshore.

“So what's with all of the dead animals on the beach lately?," Boothe said. " As Fall begins and the weather starts changing things that have died out at sea get pushed around by heavier winds and surf. It is not unusual to come across a few dead animals on the beach after a storm.”

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