‘Run of the mill’ sea creature washed up on Oregon beach turns out to be rare find

An odd sea creature caused such a “stir on social media” that rumblings of its washing ashore on an Oregon beach reached another hemisphere.

Marianne Nyegaard, a New Zealand based researcher, was combing social media when images of the 7-foot-3-inch fish caught her eye, Seaside Aquarium said in a June 6 Facebook post.

The “unusual fish” also piqued locals’ interest.

Despite stormy weather, people flocked to Gearhart Beach to catch a glimpse of the “large strange looking fish” that washed ashore June 3, the aquarium said.

Based on the photographs Nyegaard observed, she knew “this might not be a run of the mill ocean fish,” also known as mola mola, according to the aquarium.

Instead, she suspected it was “a species she’s very familiar with” — a mola tecta, or hoodwinker sunfish.

Nyegaard dubbed the mola tecta as a new species of sunfish “hiding in plain sight” in a 2017 scientific journal publication, according to the aquarium.

Per Nyegaard’s request, the aquarium said it took tissue samples from the fish for genetics testing. It also took additional photographs along with measurements.

Through analyzing the photos, the aquarium said Nyegaard confirmed the fish was her elusive hoodwinker sunfish.

This particular specimen may be the largest ever sampled, the aquarium said.

‘Hiding in plain sight’

The species was initially thought to only reside in “the temperate waters of the southern hemisphere,” according to the aquarium.

This theory, however, has been challenged, “as a few have recently washed ashore in California and one as far north as Alaska.”

Staying true to its catchphrase, “hiding in plain sight,” the fish has likely washed ashore in the Pacific Northwest previously, the aquarium said, but was probably “mistaken for the more common Mola mola.”

“The new species managed to evade discovery for nearly three centuries by ‘hiding’ in a messy history of sunfish taxonomy, partially because they are so difficult to preserve and study, even for natural history museums,” Nyegaard said in a July 2017 statement from Murdoch University.

Hence the fish’s name, mola tecta, “derived from the Latin tectus, meaning disguised or hidden,” Nyegaard said.

“Finding these fish and storing specimens for studies is a logistical nightmare due to their elusive nature and enormous size, so sunfish research is difficult at the best of times,” Nyegaard said.

The path to identifying the fish was rooted in a “four-year treasure hunt,” Nyegaard wrote in The Conversation in 2017.

“Early on, when I was asked if I would be bringing my own crane to receive a specimen, I knew I was in for a challenging — but awesome — adventure,” Nyegaard said in the university statement.

The journey began as Nyegaard worked on her PhD off Bali in Indonesia doing population studies of sunfish in the area, she said.

Through testing more than 150 DNA samples from sunfish, Nyegaard said she noticed there was one that didn’t fit any known species, but in 2013 researchers had no inkling as to what it looked like.

Nyegaard said she got some answers a year later as she examined photos of a sunfish from New Zealand and Australian fisheries.

“This fish had a little structure on its back fin that I’d never seen on a sunfish before,” Nyegaard said.

During the course of three years, the university said Nyegaard “collected data from 27 specimens of the new species, at times traveling thousands of miles or relying on the kindness of strangers to take samples of sunfish found stranded on remote beaches.”

This was the first new species added to the Mola genus in 130 years, Nyegaard said in the university statement.

“The process we had to go through to confirm its new species status included consulting publications from as far back as the 1500s, some of which also included descriptions of mermen and fantastical sea monsters,” Nyegaard said.

‘Remarkable fish’

The elusive fish will likely remain on Gearhart Beach “a few more days, maybe weeks as their tough skin makes it hard for scavengers to puncture,” the aquarium said.

“It is a remarkable fish,” the aquarium said, adding it “encourages people to go see it for themselves.”

Gearhart is about an 80-mile drive northwest from Portland.

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