Today, I’m going to introduce you to the largest bony fish on the planet. It’s an active, deep-diving predator and an excellent distance swimmer! Adults are among the largest creatures in the ocean and when they collide with boats, the boats often come off worse. What are you picturing now? Maybe a tuna? A swordfish?
Those are all valid guesses, but you're all WRONG AHAHAHAHA!
Because it's the-
KING OF THE DRIFTING TIDE.
The Mola mola, or Ocean Sunfish (We prefer Mola mola, honestly, it’s so much more fun to say. Mola mola. Mola molamolamola.) is the largest bony fish in the world. (As opposed to the boneless fish, which can usually be found frozen in stick form in your nearest supermarket). Adults are HUUUUUUGE and roughly disc-shaped, like the world’s largest and weirdest frisbee. They can easily grow to 10 feet long and 12 feet tall, which are usually dimensions you only use if you’re talking about flooring.
(Yes lovely, but does it come in a tile pattern?)
The Mola mola stands head and nonexistent shoulders above the rest of fishkind due to its unique body plan. Most of its body consists of its gigantic face, long winglike fins, and short half-moon rudder of a tail. Unlike a normal fish which has to thrash madly about with its tail to get anywhere, the Mola molamolamola gets around by flapping its dorsal and ventral fins. (Top and bottom. Science just likes to feel special.) It beats these long fins like wings, and it’s the same physics that birds use to abuse gravity which drags these gigantic fish through the sea. Face-first. LIKE A BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY.
This unorthodox swimming method is so strange and so efficient that early scientists had no idea this is how the Mola molamolamola (sorry, I’ll stop) got around! They thought that these monster fish just kind of drifted with the tide, and even classified the poor Mola mola as a kind of plankton for a while! But we now know that this was wrong, and also stupid AND THOSE SCIENTISTS SHOULD FEEL BAD. Mola mola usually swim pretty slow, true, but that’s because their… uh… wing-y bits… are so efficient! They can cross thousands of miles of open water at their slower cruising speed of 2 entire mph, but they are also capable of wiggling those fins fast enough to hurl themselves completely out of the water like a giant rogue frisbee. (In fact, Mola mola breaches can be a problem in some areas, as they aren’t very good at watching where they land and sometimes end up capsizing small boats. Whoopsie!)
The Mola mola is an active hunter, and it can get away with eating lots of not-particularly-nutritious animals because of its low energy requirements. Things like jellyfish and portuguese man o’ wars and squid. The rough equivalent for us would be that one guy you knew in college who could get away with eating ramen and Hot Cheetos and NOTHING ELSE. It’s horrifying, but impressive.
Mola molas dive deep into the icy depths to hunt these soft boneless lunches, sometimes going deeper than 2,600 feet! The water is REALLY FREAKING COLD down there, tell you what. The Mola molas stay down there for HOURS stuffing themselves to the literal gills, but they’re awfully chilly when they come back to the surface. So what’s a poor cold fish to do? Well, they bask in the sunlight to raise their body temperatures. This is actually where the term ‘sunfish’ came from, as well as the whole “MOLA MOLAS ARE LAZY AND DON’T DO ANYTHING EVER” trope. That’s not true, is what I’m getting at here.
(Also at this point, they are sometimes struck by boats as fish are not capable of understanding nautical right of way.)
But this basking habit is also unfortunate because it makes the Mola mola a giant, fish-shaped target floating around in open water. They are regularly eaten by sharks, sea lions, killer whales, and, uh… humans. Mola mola are regularly caught in huge numbers, and are now in decline worldwide. THIS IS NOT ALLOWED. Who’s going to eat all of the jellyfish if they’re not around? The recent creation of marine preserves does give some hope for the future of the Mola molamolamolamola, though there is still a lot of work needed to restrain overfishing. Hopefully these big big weirdos will continue to populate our oceans long into the future. Keep doing your pancake thing, Mola mola! (AND EAT THOSE JELLYFISH. PLEASE, THEY’RE AWFUL.)
🎵JUST KEEP SWIMMING, JUST KEEP SWIMMING🎵
1. Tom Bridge, Flickr
2. Fred Hsu, Wikimedia Commons
3. Vanessa Tuttle, NOAA
4. Ilse Reijs and Jan-Noud Hutten, Flickr