New Species of Ocean Sunfish

Aquatic scientific names in the news …

A new species of Ocean sunfish has been described in the paper, Hiding in broad daylight: molecular and morphological data reveal a new ocean sunfish species (Tetraodontiformes: Molidae) that has eluded recognition, published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Marianne Nyegaard with a beached hoodwinker sunfish. Image: Murdoch University

The new species, Mola tecta, is the result of a four year search centred around genetic sequencing. During her research Marianne Nyegaard analysed more than 150 samples of sunfish DNA, her results indicated that the samples belonged to four distinct species, Masturus lanceolatus, Mola mola, and Mola ramsayi along with a fourth unknown species. The search for the unknown species was carried out by looking at pictures of sunfish on social media as well as pictures sent by observers from New Zealand and Australian fisheries in an attempt to find photographs of a previously undescribed sunfish

In 2014 a small specimen was found tangled up in fishing line, it was hauled out of the water to be freed, photographed and a genetic sample was taken. The search culminated with four fish being stranded in one go on the same beach in New Zealand.

Ultimately enough fish were found to describe this species ranging in size from 50cm to nearly 2.5m. Unlike the other species, they don’t develop lumps and bumps as they grow. Their back fin is separated into an upper and lower part, with a small flexible piece of skin, which has been termed the “back-fold”, connecting the halves.

Hoodwinker sunfish off the coast of Chile. Image: César Villarroel, ExploraSub

Sunfish aren’t particularly rare, but they’re tricky to study as they live in parts of the ocean most humans don’t go. Their exact range is unknown but it seems to be the colder parts of the Southern Hemisphere. They’ve been found all around New Zealand (mostly around the South Island), off Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales (Australia), South Africa and southern Chile.

It seems likely that, given its size, this will be the largest new species to be described this year.


Mola tecta Nyegaard, 2017, the Hoodwinker sunfish

Mola – Latin, mill, millstone; grinders, molar-teeth. Alluding to the to the fact that the fish is similar in shape to a millstone (G. Rondelet De Piscibus Marinis1554).

tecta – Latin, hidden; secret, concealed, disguised. Name alluding to the species having been hiding in plain sight for centuries.

See also: Ocean sunfish.


Aquatic scientific names in the news …

Two new species of fish, one from the Orinoco river drainage the other from the Xingu river of Brazil, have been described by a team of scientists from Oregon State and Brazil in a paper published in the journal Neotropical Ichthyology.

The species of fish from the Orinoco River drainage, Leporinus enyae, has been named in honour of the Irish singer and songwriter Enya and her song Orinoco Flow, a song often played in the lab at Oregon State University where some of the scientists were working and which was felt to be appropriate tribute to the songwriter.

Leporinus enyae Image: José Birindelli.

The second newly discovered fish, Leporinus villasboasorum, has been named in honour of the pioneering efforts of the Villas-Bôas brothers, Orlando, Cláudio and Leonardo. In 1961 they succeeded in getting the entire upper Xingu legally protected, the first indigenous park in South America, leading to dozens of further parks being created around the continent.

Leporinus is the largest and most diverse genus in the characiform family Anostomidae and includes roughly 90 species across most of South America. Many species swim in an oblique head-down position earning the family the common name of Headstanders. Most species are herbivores or detritivores and they occur throughout South America with the exception of the east Andes. Both new species are comparatively small, around 20 to 25 cms long, although larger members of their family can reach a length of 60 cms. Some smaller members of the family make their way into the aquarium trade.

The term Leporinus literally means “little hare,” in reference to the large teeth that protrude from the mouth, much like those of a rabbit. The bottom teeth of the two new species are particularly long, and while no one is sure why, the researchers note that it may relate to their foraging on plants, worms and other invertebrates.


Leporinus enyae Burns, Chatfield, Birindelli, & Sidlauskas, 2017

Leporinus – Latin, of or like a hare (classical – Pliny). Named in allusion to the large teeth that protrude from the mouth, much like those of a rabbit.

enyae Eponym. “Named in honor of the singer Enya, whose beautiful song “Orinoco Flow” celebrates the flow of the mighty Orinoco River, which the new species inhabits.”*

Leporinus villasboasorum Burns, Chatfield, Birindelli, & Sidlauskas, 2017

Leporinus – As above.

villasboasorum Eponym. “Named in honor of Orlando, Cláudio and Leonardo Villas-Bôas, in recognition of their pioneering efforts to conserve and protect the rio Xingu’s marvelous biodiversity, of which Leporinus villasboasorum forms part.”*

*Systematic assessment of the Leporinus desmotes species complex, with a description of two new species. Michael D. Burns, Marcus Chatfield, José L. O. Birindelli and Brian L. Sidlauskas, 2017

Northern bottlenose whale

Aquatic scientific names in the news …

The Grant Zoology Museum in London has announced a Whale Weekender this weekend (8th – 9th July).

Members of the public are invited to come along and help clean the bones of a Northern bottlenose whale and then assist in reassembling the skeleton.

The “great fish” as it was called was caught 157 years ago by two Somerset fisherman and was a sensation at the time. The eight metre long carcass went on a tour of the west country and the skeleton was then put on display hanging from the ceiling of the museum in Weston-super-Mare.

It was dismantled in 1948 and then transferred to the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London. Although the skull has remained on display there has never been space to display the entire skeleton so the rest of the bones have been held in storage.

This weekend offers the first opportunity to check if the skeleton is complete, all the bones will be brought together for cleaning before being laid out in their entirety and for the first time the largest specimen in the museums collection will be properly seen.

  The whale bones ready to be brought out for cleaning and assembly.      Image: Jack Ashby, Grant Zoology Museum

The northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) is a species of bottlenose whale belonging to the family Ziphiidae, and is one of two members of the genus Hyperoodon. The northern bottlenose whale is endemic to the NorthAtlantic Ocean and was heavily hunted in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mature specimens measure around 10 metres in length and are estimated to weigh in the region of 5,800 to 7,500 kilograms. The species is significantly larger than the related Southern bottlenose whale of the southern hemisphere. The beak is long and white on males but grey on females. The falcate (sickle-shaped) dorsal fin is relatively small and set far back on the body.

It is one of the deepest diving mammals known, reaching depths of 1453 m hunting for squid and fish near the sea floor and staying submerged for an hour or more. Despite being a deep diving species they are sometimes seen, in small numbers, playing and resting in shallow waters and can be playful and curious towards human vessels.

A Northern bottlenose whale was in the news in 2006 when one was spotted in the Thames reaching up river as far as the Albert bridge. Attempts to rescue it failed and its skeleton is now in the Natural History Museum, London.

Northern bottlenose whale Painting: Archibald Thorburn (1920-21)

Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770) – the Northern bottlenose whale


Hyperoodon – Greek, Hypero-, hyperoon (υπερων), the upper part of the mouth, the palate; -odon, odous (οδους), tooth. “Hyperoon, in Greek, means palate; and odos means tooth.” * Named in reference to the presence of teeth on the surface of the palate.
*Lacépède, 1804

ampullatus – Latin, ampull-, ampulla, a vessel with two handles, a flask, bottle, jar; -atus, suffix indicating possession or likeness. Name likely alluding to the shape and the common name of the time, “… is called by the sailors Bottle-nose … has a head like a bottle…”*
*Forster, 1770


Starlet anemone

Aquatic scientific names in the news …

A small sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, has recently featured in a number of news stories regarding the future possibility of regenerating human heart tissue.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Florida have found genes known to help form hearts cells in humans in the gut of Nematostella vectensis. Interestingly, this anemone has the capacity to regenerate and, if cut into pieces, each piece has the capacity to grow into a new animal.

Image: Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience

The scientists believe that if they can learn how these genes give rise to heart cells that they may be able to figure out how to improve muscle regeneration in humans. Once genes are turned on in humans to create, for example, heart cells they cannot become any other type of cell, they can only be heart cells. In the anemone this fixation does not occur leaving cells free to become other types of cells or to fulfil other functions.

Cell regeneration in the human heart is limited to a slow replacement of damaged cells resulting in a build-up of scar tissue.

With further study its hoped to find ways of improving communication between human genes, mimicking the anemone’s capacity to regenerate, and advance our ability to treat heart conditions through regenerative healing.

Image: National Museums Northern Ireland

Nematostella vectensis is a small sea anemone with a bulbous basal end and a contractile column ranging in length from around 2 to 6cm. Usually found buried up to the crown in fine silt or sand, with its tentacles flared out on the surface of the sediment. When not feeding the tentacles retract into the column

At the top of the column is an oral disk containing the mouth surrounded by two rings of long slender tentacles numbering between fourteen and twenty, the outermost being longer than the inner ones. It is translucent and largely colourless but usually has a pattern of white markings on the column and white banding on the tentacles.

It is found on the eastern and westward seaboard of North America with a range extending from Nova Scotia to Louisiana on the east coast and from Washington to California on the west coast. It is also known from three locations in the United Kingdom, two in East Anglia and one on the Isle of Wight. Typically found in shallow water in brackish ponds and lagoons, and in ditches and pools in salt marshes.

Nematostella vectensis is used as a model organism in a number of fields including developmental biology, ecology, the study of evolution, reproductive biology. and has a dedicated genomics database. It is easy to care for in captivity and reproduces readily in the laboratory.

Nematostella vectensis Stephenson, 1935 – Starlet sea anemone


Nematostella – Greek, Nemato-, nematos (νηματος), that which is spun, thread, filament; Latin, -stella, star. Likely alluding to the thread-like form of the tentacles and the star-like markings surrounding the oral disc.

vectensis – Latin, of, or coming, from the Isle of Wight; vectis, an island south of Britain (classical – Pliny). The type locality for the species is at Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.