Animal Database

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Animal Database
Animal Database
Ocean Sunfish
Mola Mola
Common Name Mola Mola or Common Mola
Range Tropical and Temperate Oceans
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Actinopterygii
Order Tetraodontiformes
Family Molidae
Genus Mola
Species M. mola
Conservation Status

The Ocean sunfish, (Mola mola), is the heaviest known bony fish in the world. It has an average adult weight of 1,000 kg (2,200 lb). The species is native to tropical and temperate waters around the globe. It resembles a fish head with a tail, and its main body is flattened laterally. Sunfish can be as tall as they are long when their dorsal and ventral fins are extended.

The sunfish lives on a diet that consists mainly of jellyfish, but because this diet is nutritionally poor, they consume large amounts in order to develop and maintain their great bulk. Females of the species can produce more eggs than any other known vertebrate. Sunfish fry resemble miniature pufferfish, with large pectoral fins, a tail fin and body spines uncharacteristic of adult sunfish.

Adult sunfish are vulnerable to few natural predators, but sea lions, killer whales and sharks will consume them. Among humans, sunfish are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, including Japan, the Korean peninsula and Taiwan. In the EU, regulations ban the sale of fish and fishery products derived of the Molidae family. Sunfish are frequently, though accidentally, caught in gillnets.

A member of the order Tetraodontiformes, which also includes pufferfish, porcupinefish and filefish, the sunfish shares many traits common to members of this order. It was originally classified as Tetraodon mola under the pufferfish genus, but it has since been given its own genus, Mola, with two species under it. The ocean sunfish, Mola mola, is the type species of the genus.

Naming and Taxonomy[]

Many of the sunfish's various names allude to its flattened shape. Its specific name, mola, is Latin for "millstone", which the fish resembles because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. Its common English names, sunfish, refers to the animal's habit of sunbathing at the surface of the water. The Dutch-, Portuguese-, French-, Catalan-, Spanish-, Italian-, Russian- and German-language names, respectively maanvis, peixe lua, poisson lune, peix lluna, pez luna, pesce luna, рыба-луна and Mondfisch, mean "moon fish", in reference to its rounded shape. In German, the fish is also known as Schwimmender Kopf, or "swimming head". In Polish it is named samogłów, meaning "head alone", because it has no true tail. The Chinese translation of its academic name is fan-che yu 翻車魚, meaning "toppled car fish". The ocean sunfish has various superseded binomial synonyms, and was originally classified in the pufferfish genus, as Tetraodon mola. It is now placed in its own genus, Mola, with two species: Mola mola and Mola ramsayi. The ocean sunfish, is the type species of the genus.

The Mola genus belongs to the Molidae family. This family comprises 3 genera: Masturus, Mola and Ranzania. The common name "sunfish" without qualifier is used to describe the Molidae marine family as well as the freshwater sunfishes in the family Centrarchidae which are unrelated to Molidae. On the other hand, the name "ocean sunfish" and "mola" refer only to the family Molidae.

The Molidae family belongs to the order Tetraodontiformes, which includes pufferfish, porcupinefish and filefish. It shares many traits common to members of this order, including the four fused teeth that form the characteristic beak and give the order its name (tetra=four, odous=tooth, and forma=shape). Indeed, sunfish fry resemble spiky pufferfish more than they resemble adult molas.


The caudal fin of the ocean sunfish is replaced by a rounded clavus, creating the body's distinct truncated shape. The body is flattened laterally, giving it a long oval shape when seen head-on. The pectoral fins are small and fan-shaped, while the dorsal fin and the anal fin are lengthened, often making the fish as tall as it is long. Specimens up to 3.2 m (10.5 ft) in height have been recorded.

The mature ocean sunfish has an average length of 1.8 m (5.9 ft), a fin-to-fin length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and an average weight of 1,000 kg (2,200 lb), although individuals up to 3.3 m (10.8 ft) in length 4.2 m (14 ft) across the fins and weighing up to 2,300 kg (5,100 lb) have been observed.

The spinal column of the sunfish contains fewer vertebrae and is shorter in relation to the body than that of any other fish. Although the sunfish descended from bony ancestors, its skeleton contains largely cartilaginous tissues, which are lighter than bone, allowing it to grow to sizes impractical for other bony fishes. Its teeth are fused into a beak-like structure, and pharyngeal teeth located in the throat.

The sunfish lacks a swim bladder. Some sources indicate that the internal organs contain a concentrated neurotoxin, tetrodotoxin, like the organs of other poisonous tetraodontiformes, while others dispute this claim.


In the course of its evolution, the caudal fin (tail) of the sunfish disappeared, to be replaced by a lumpy pseudo-tail, the clavus. This structure is formed by the convergence of the dorsal and anal fins. The smooth-denticled clavus retains twelve fin rays, and terminates in a number of rounded ossicles. Without a true tail to provide thrust for forward motion and equipped with only small pectoral fins, Mola mola relies on its long, thin dorsal and anal fins for propulsion, driving itself forward by moving these fins from side to side.

Ocean sunfish often swim near the surface, and their protruding dorsal fins are sometimes mistaken for those of sharks. However, the two can be distinguished by the motion of the fin. Sharks, like most fish, swim by moving the tail sideways while keeping the dorsal fin stationary. The sunfish, on the other hand, swings its dorsal fin and anal fin in a characteristic sculling motion which can be used to identify it.

Human Interaction[]

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A dish made with the meat of the ocean sunfish

Despite their size, ocean sunfish are docile, and pose no threat to human divers. Injuries from sunfish are rare, although there is a slight danger from large sunfish leaping out of the water onto boats; in one instance a boy was knocked off his boat when a sunfish leaped onto it. Areas where they are commonly found are popular destinations for sport dives, and sunfish at some locations have reportedly become familiar with divers. The fish is more of a problem to boaters than to swimmers, as its immense size and weight can cause significant damage to a boat that strikes one of these fish. Collisions with sunfish are very common in some parts of the world and have caused damage to the hull of a boat, and their bodies can become lodged in the propellers of larger ships.

The meat of the ocean sunfish is considered a delicacy in some regions, the largest markets being Taiwan and Japan. All parts of the sunfish are used in cuisine, from the fins to the internal organs. Some parts of the fish are used in some areas of traditional medicine. If the body does contain toxins, then the marketing and sale of ocean sunfish meat is forbidden in the European Union according to Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council.

Sunfish are accidentally but frequently caught in drift gillnet fisheries, making up nearly 30% of the total catch of the swordfish fishery employing drift gillnet in California. The by-catch rate is even higher for the Mediterranean swordfish industry, with 71% to 90% of the total catch being sunfish.

The fishery by-catch and destruction of ocean sunfish are unregulated worldwide. In some areas, the fish are "finned" by fishermen who regard them as worthless bait thieves; this process, in which the fins are cut off, results in the eventual death of the fish, because it can no longer propel itself without its dorsal and anal fins. The species is also threatened by floating litter such as plastic bags which resemble jellyfish, its main food. Bags can choke and suffocate an individual or fill its stomach to the extent that it starves.

Many areas of sunfish biology remain poorly understood, and various research efforts are underway, including aerial surveys of mola populations, satellite surveillance using pop-off satellite tags, genetic analysis of tissue samples, and collection of amateur sighting data. Recent studies indicate a decrease in sunfish populations that may be caused by more frequent bycatch and the increasing popularity of sunfish in human diet.

Sunfish in Captivity[]

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A tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides a size comparison between an ocean sunfish and humans

Sunfish are not widely held in aquarium exhibits, due to the unique and demanding requirements of their care. Some Asian aquariums display them, particularly in Japan. The Kaiyukan Aquarium Japan, is one of few aquariums with mola on display, where it is reportedly as popular an attraction as the larger whale sharks. The Lisbon Oceanarium in Portugal is another aquarium where sunfish are showcased in the main tank, and in Spain, both the Valencia Oceanogràfic and the Aquarium Barcelona have specimens of sunfish. The Nordsøen Oceanarium in the northern town of Hirtshals in Denmark is also famous for its sunfish.

While it is claimed that the first ocean sunfish to be held in an aquarium in the United States arrived at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in August 1986, other specimens have previously been held at other locations. Marineland of the Pacific, located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County, California, held an ocean sunfish in its warm water tank as early as 1957, and in 1964 held a 650-pound specimen, claimed as the largest ever captured at that point in time. However, another 1000-pound specimen was brought alive to Marineland Studios Aquarium, near St. Augustine, Florida, in 1941. As of 2012, Monterey Bay Aquarium is the only location in the United States where the sunfish is displayed. Because sunfish had not been kept in captivity on a large scale before, the staff at Monterey Bay were forced to innovate and create their own methods for capture, feeding, and parasite control. By 1998, these issues were overcome, and the aquarium was able to hold a specimen for more than a year, later releasing it after its weight increased by more than 14 times. Mola mola have since become a permanent feature of the Open Sea exhibit. Monterey Bay Aquarium's largest sunfish specimen was euthanized on February 14, 2008 after an extended period of poor health.




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