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Scientific First for Oregon Coast: New Kind of Sunfish Confirmed at Gearhart

Published 6/06/24 at 5:15 p.m.
By Andre' Hagestedt, Oregon Coast Beach Connection

(Gearhart, Oregon) – You could say, we've been hoodwinked all this time by a certain fish. (All photos Tiffany Boothe / Seaside Aquarium)

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Bad puns aside, the north Oregon coast's Seaside Aquarium helped make a rather remarkable find recently, when a Mola mola (otherwise known as a sunfish) washed up on the north Oregon coast beaches of Gearhart.

That stranding incident spread fast on social media, and it immediately caught the attention of a researcher in New Zealand, who then asked Seaside Aquarium to get some genetic samples of it tested. Her theory was correct: it turned out this wasn't a regular ol' Mola mola. It was a hoodwinker sunfish, a Mola tecta, which science has only recently discovered has been among the sunfish populations this whole time.

Marianne Nyegaard is cutting edges down under: still a PhD student, she's discovered a new species of sunfish – and even has her own Wikipedia page. She contacted Tiffany Boothe at the Seaside Aquarium after spotting the Mola mola shots on Oregon's coast, some 7,000 miles from New Zealand.

“You’ve heard of an ocean sunfish, but have you heard of the hoodwinker sunfish?,” Boothe said. “The photographs she saw indicated that this might not be a run-of-the-mill ocean sunfish (Mola mola) but a different species that she was very familiar with, the hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta). It was through her research that she discovered and described this new species of sunfish, which she published in 2017.”

It's been dubbed a “new species hiding in plain sight,” Boothe said.

This one is also a first in that it's likely the largest of sunfish ever found on these shores, at over 7 feet.

Previous Mola mola from 2019

Nygaard made a host of discoveries about this new species in the last ten years, which included ID'ing it via DNA, finding it was a different species of Mola mola that simply looked a lot like the others. The average person wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Initially, Nygaard assumed they were simply southern hemisphere dwellers. But several years ago it started showing up in Canada, connecting Nygaard and researchers up there and making more discoveries about this unusual fish.

When this incident popped up online, Nygaard was apparently reliving those Canada Hoodwinker moments.

Graphic Nyegaard: how to tell the difference

“Nyegaard reached out to the Seaside Aquarium to see if they would be willing to take samples for genetics,” Boothe said. “Staff quickly responded, took more photographs, measurements, and tissue samples. Through photographs, Marianne confirmed that it was a hoodwinker and that this may be the largest specimen ever sampled.”

Check that box for the Oregon coast achieving another first.

Also see Rarity of Oregon / Washington Coast: the Trippy Mola Mola / Sunfish (Video)

Nyegaard's finds about this wacky fish and its new relative have been integral, but she's been constantly surprised over how far north it's been found, causing her to revise theories, according to various news reports. Other publications describe her combing through photos of mola mola on the West Coast of the U.S. and discovering more and more of this new fish.

“This fish, hiding in plain sight, has most likely been seen/washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest before but was mistaken for the more common, Mola mola,” Boothe said.

Not unlike the finds down under, it seems they may have been here quite a while.

“We don’t know for sure but it is likely that it’s been here all this time,” Boothe told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “But more research would be needed to confirm that.”

The creature is 7.3 feet, and it's still there – for awhile.

“This fish is still on Gearhart beach and will probably remain for a few more days, maybe weeks as their tough skin makes it hard for scavengers to puncture,” Boothe said. “It is a remarkable fish and the aquarium encourages people to go see it for themselves.”

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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