Otago Museum's sunfish even more intriguing

If you want to learn a strange secret, take a closer look at the big ocean sunfish specimen on display in the ground floor foyer of the Otago Museum.

The fibreglass cast was made in 1960 and later put on display, but only now, thanks to some genetic detective work, has the sunfish been given its correct name.

Scientists have identified it as a  hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta), a member of the first new sunfish species to be identified for 130 years.

Otago Museum natural science curator Emma Burns (left) and Otago Genetic Analysis Service manager...
Otago Museum natural science curator Emma Burns (left) and Otago Genetic Analysis Service manager Joanne Gillum with a fibreglass cast of the newly named species, Hoodwinker sunfish. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
Hoodwinkers are found in the cold waters of New Zealand, southern Chile, South Africa and the southeast coast of Australia and may be relatively common in New Zealand waters.

The museum’s foyer cast specimen records the largest known member of the hoodwinker species, which may have weighed about 450kg.

Marianne Nyegaard, a PhD student at Murdoch University in Australia, was the lead author in a recently published scientific paper on the  newly named sunfish species and led an  international project to identify and describe it.

Genetic work by University of Otago anatomy department head Prof Neil Gemmell and Joanne Gillum, who is part of his team, also contributed.

Otago Museum natural science curator Emma Burns was also part of the overall international detective work that uncovered the "hoodwinker" sunfish, including passing on two samples of DNA from stranded hoodwinker specimens, in association with the Department of Conservation.

Sunfish, sometimes likened to a "giant pancake", are the world’s heaviest bony fish. They  can weigh up to two tonnes and reach 3m in length.

The heavy, bony creatures sometimes warm themselves in sunlit waters at the ocean surface — hence their sunfish name — before, at times, plunging 200m  or more  to feed on jellyfish. Prof Gemmell said the genetics work was "an important part of the puzzle". Mrs Gillum had led that work within his team and should "receive the credit".

Ms Burns said the museum’s education team was "absolutely excited" about how young visitors would react to a favourite sunfish with a "new name".

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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