The Ocean Sunfish, also known as Mola mola, is a fascinating and enigmatic creature that inhabits the world’s oceans. With its peculiar shape and impressive size, this magnificent fish has captivated the curiosity of scientists and marine enthusiasts alike.
While many may have heard of these gentle giants, there are several surprising facts about them that are relatively unknown.
In this article, we will explore ten intriguing facts about the majestic Ocean Sunfish from its unique appearance to its peculiar feeding habits revealing why it continues to be one of nature’s most captivating wonders beneath the waves.
8 Surprising Facts About the Majestic Ocean Sunfish
Here are 10 surprising facts about the majestic ocean sunfish, presented as subheadings:
1. Heaviest Bony Fish in the World
The ocean sunfish, also known as Mola mola, is the heaviest bony fish in the world, with some individuals weighing over 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg).
The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) holds the title of being the heaviest bony fish in the world. These unique creatures are known for their large, flattened bodies and can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) or even more. They are found in temperate and tropical oceans around the globe.
Despite their immense weight, sunfish are not aggressive or dangerous to humans. They primarily feed on jellyfish and other small marine organisms by swimming slowly near the water surface, basking in the sun to warm themselves.
Their size and distinctive appearance make them a fascinating sight for divers and marine enthusiasts.
2. Feeding and Distribution
The ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, is a pelagic species, which means it inhabits the open ocean rather than coastal or benthic environments. They have a wide distribution, found in temperate and tropical waters around the world.
Here are some details about their feeding habitat and distribution:
Surface Dwellers: Ocean sunfish are primarily surface dwellers, spending much of their time near the water surface. They have a unique habit of basking at the surface, where they expose themselves to the sun’s warmth.
Jellyfish Predators: Sunfish are opportunistic feeders and have a particular affinity for jellyfish. They mainly feed on gelatinous organisms, including different species of jellyfish and salps. They use their small mouths to consume these soft-bodied organisms.
Plankton Consumers: Besides jellyfish, sunfish also consume other planktonic organisms, such as small fish, crustaceans, and zooplankton. However, jellyfish constitute a significant part of their diet.
Global Range: Ocean sunfish have a vast distribution and can be found in all the world’s major oceans. They are commonly spotted in both temperate and tropical waters, though they may prefer areas with higher concentrations of their preferred prey, such as jellyfish.
Epipelagic Zone: Sunfish inhabit the epipelagic zone, which refers to the upper layer of the ocean extending from the surface down to a few hundred meters deep. This zone is characterized by abundant sunlight and a diverse range of marine life.
Seasonal Movements: While ocean sunfish are considered highly migratory, their movements are not fully understood. They are known to follow ocean currents and may undertake seasonal migrations in search of food, warmer waters, or suitable breeding grounds.
Coastal Occurrence: Although ocean sunfish generally prefer the open ocean, they can occasionally venture closer to coastal areas, especially when jellyfish populations are abundant.
3. Unique Body Shape
The sunfish, also known as the ocean sunfish or Mola mola, possesses a truly unique body shape that sets it apart from other fish species.
Ocean sunfish have a body shape that is flattened laterally, giving them a disc-like appearance. Their body is also very tall, which can make them look like they are swimming vertically in the water.
Here are some key features of their distinctive body shape:
Large and Flattened Body: Sunfish have a massive, almost circular body that is flattened laterally. Their body is the heaviest of any bony fish, as mentioned earlier, and it can reach impressive sizes with some individuals growing up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length.
Lack of a Tail Fin: Unlike most fish, sunfish have no caudal (tail) fin. Instead, they have developed a rounded clavus or rudder-like structure at the rear end of their body, which helps them move through the water.
Dorsal and Anal Fins: Sunfish have two prominent fins: a dorsal fin and an anal fin. These fins are elongated and run along the length of the body. The dorsal fin is used for stability and balance, while the anal fin helps with propulsion.
Skin Texture: The skin of a sunfish is rough, thick, and leathery. It lacks scales, and its coloration can vary from silvery-gray to brown or even white. The skin is often covered in various parasites and hitchhiking organisms.
Mola Shape: The sunfish’s unique body shape gives it the appearance of a large swimming head with its tiny mouth and eyes. This peculiar form has earned it the name “Mola,” derived from the Latin word for “millstone,” due to its resemblance to a millstone used for grinding grain.
Adaptations for a Buoyant Lifestyle: Sunfish are primarily pelagic creatures, spending much of their time near the water surface. To support their large size and buoyant lifestyle, they have a relatively light skeleton made of cartilage, which reduces their weight compared to bony fish with heavier bone structures.
4. Fast Growth Rate
The ocean sunfish, also known as Mola mola, is remarkable not only for its unique body shape but also for its fast growth rate during its early life stages. Sunfish are known to be one of the fastest-growing fish species in the ocean.
Ocean sunfish have a very fast growth rate, and they can grow to be very large in just a few years. They are able to grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) in length and weigh over 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg).
When sunfish hatch from their eggs, they start their lives as tiny larvae, no bigger than a few millimeters in length. From this point, they undergo rapid growth, fueled by their voracious appetite for small planktonic organisms, such as jellyfish and zooplankton.
During the first few months of their life, ocean sunfish can grow at an astonishing rate, gaining several kilograms in weight each day. This rapid growth is essential for their survival, as it allows them to quickly reach a size where they are less vulnerable to predation.
However, as sunfish grow larger, their growth rate begins to slow down. Once they reach maturity, their growth rate becomes relatively slow compared to their early life stages. Adult sunfish can continue to grow, but the rate significantly decreases compared to their juvenile phase.
The fast growth of ocean sunfish during their early life stages is a crucial adaptation that helps them take advantage of available food resources and reach a size where they can better defend themselves against predators in the open ocean.
It also contributes to their status as the heaviest bony fish in the world, as they can attain impressive sizes through their rapid growth during their juvenile years.
5. Breeding Behaviors
Ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, exhibit fascinating breeding behaviors. However, their reproductive habits are not as well understood as some other fish species due to the challenges of studying these elusive creatures in their vast ocean habitat.
Here are some known aspects of ocean sunfish breeding behavior:
Spawning: The specific details of ocean sunfish spawning are not entirely clear. It is believed that they are external spawners, releasing eggs and sperm into the water. The released eggs are left to fertilize in the open ocean.
Mating Rituals: The mating rituals of ocean sunfish have not been extensively observed. Like many pelagic species, they likely engage in complex courtship behaviors and mating rituals, but these activities occur far from human observation.
Large Egg Production: Female sunfish are known to produce a massive number of eggs during a single reproductive event. Estimates suggest that a single female can release millions of tiny eggs into the water.
Egg and Larval Development: Once the eggs are fertilized, they hatch into tiny, transparent larvae. These larvae are carried by ocean currents and drift in the plankton-rich waters. The early life stages of ocean sunfish are often referred to as “miniature adults” since they resemble the adult form but in a much smaller size.
Juvenile Growth: As mentioned earlier, ocean sunfish experience rapid growth during their early life stages. They feed on plankton and small marine organisms, which fuel their growth and development.
Independent Life: Once the larvae develop into juveniles, they start to grow and lead more independent lives. They continue to feed on plankton and other small marine organisms.
6. Ocean Sunfish Known As A Parasite Hotel
The ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, is often referred to as a “parasite hotel” due to its unique relationship with various parasites and hitchhiking organisms.
The sunfish’s large, flat body and slow swimming speed make it an ideal surface for many parasites and other marine creatures to attach themselves to.
As the sunfish swims near the water surface, these organisms take advantage of the opportunity to find a mobile home and source of food.
Some of the common parasites and organisms that can be found on ocean sunfish include:
Skin Parasites: Various types of skin parasites, such as copepods and isopods, attach themselves to the sunfish’s skin. These small creatures feed on the sunfish’s tissue, mucus, or blood.
Jellyfish Larvae: Sunfish primarily feed on jellyfish, but their slow swimming speed sometimes leads to jellyfish larvae latching onto their skin. The sunfish acts as a floating nursery for these jellyfish until they develop and mature.
Sea Lice: Sunfish can also host sea lice, which are small crustaceans that attach themselves to the fish’s skin and feed on its tissue.
Remora Fish: Remoras, also known as suckerfish, are fish that have a specialized dorsal fin modified into a suction cup-like structure. They can often be found hitchhiking on the sunfish, obtaining both protection and easy access to food scraps from the sunfish’s meals.
Birds: Seabirds such as gulls and frigatebirds have been observed perching on the floating sunfish, using them as resting platforms.
This unique relationship between ocean sunfish and its various “guests” benefits both parties in some ways. The parasites and hitchhiking organisms gain access to a mobile habitat and a consistent food source, while the sunfish does not seem to be significantly affected by their presence.
In fact, studies have shown that the sunfish’s immune system may be adapted to tolerate or control the parasites without suffering severe harm.
7. Adults Solitary Living
Adult ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, are known for their solitary and independent lifestyle. Unlike many other fish species, adult sunfish do not form schools or exhibit strong social behaviors.
They are typically found swimming alone in the open ocean, often far from coastlines and other marine habitats.
Their solitary living is thought to be a result of their unique biology and ecological niche. As pelagic fish, ocean sunfish are highly migratory and can cover vast distances in search of food and suitable water temperatures.
Their large, flat bodies allow them to float at the water surface, where they often bask in the sun to warm up their bodies.
Here are some reasons why adult ocean sunfish are solitary:
Feeding Behavior: Adult sunfish mainly feed on jellyfish and other gelatinous organisms. Since jellyfish are widely dispersed in the open ocean, sunfish have to search large areas to find sufficient food. This solitary lifestyle enables them to roam freely and cover extensive territories in search of prey.
Limited Interactions: Sunfish do not have a strong social structure or the need for group interactions. Their simple brain structure and lack of complex social behaviors suggest that they do not require social connections for survival.
Energy Conservation: Sunfish are not fast swimmers, and their movement is relatively slow and energy-consuming. Swimming in groups may not be beneficial for them in terms of energy conservation, as they might need to keep up with the pace of the group.
No Need for Protection: Unlike some schooling fish that use safety in numbers as a defense against predators, adult sunfish have few natural predators due to their large size and thick skin. This reduces the necessity for forming groups for protection.
8. Leisurely Habit of Sunbathing
The ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, has a fascinating leisurely habit of sunbathing, which is often observed near the water surface that’s why they are named as Sunfish. This behavior is known as “basking,” and it serves several important purposes for these large marine creatures.
Thermoregulation: As ectothermic animals (cold-blooded), ocean sunfish rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperature. By basking at the water surface, they expose themselves to the warmth of the sun, which helps raise their body temperature. This is particularly beneficial in cooler waters, as it enables them to function optimally and aids in digestion.
Parasite Removal: Sunbathing also serves as a form of cleaning. The sunfish’s skin is often infested with various parasites, including copepods and other small organisms. By basking in the sun, they attract birds, such as seagulls, that feed on these parasites. The birds peck at the sunfish’s skin, removing the unwanted hitchhikers and providing the sunfish with a parasite-cleaning service.
Energy Conservation: Sunfish are not the most agile swimmers due to their large, flat bodies, which limits their ability to efficiently travel through water. By staying near the water surface and moving slowly, they can conserve energy. This energy-saving behavior is crucial for their survival, as it allows them to remain in the open ocean, where food resources might be scattered and sparse.
Social Interactions: While adult sunfish are primarily solitary, during basking periods, multiple individuals may gather in the same area to engage in this behavior. This can provide an opportunity for social interactions, such as courtship or mate selection, although the extent of social interactions during basking is not yet fully understood.