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What’s a Mola? Behind the Strange Fish Picture Surging on Facebook

By Kastalia Medrano

The remarkable ability of Internet users to make a post go viral has produced a new treat: an enchanting picture of a Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, undulating just below the surface of the ocean. The image, snapped by photographer Daniel Botelho in 2010, is now making waves around Facebook.

The attention might be focused on the one image for the moment, but sunfish are worth learning about in their own right. National Geographic spoke to Dr. Tierney Thys, who in addition to being named a National Geographic Explorer, is both founder and director of the Ocean Sunfish Tagging and Research Program.

NG: Let’s start with the basics—what exactly is a sunfish?

TT: It’s the world’s heaviest bony fish. It’s in the same order as puffer fish and porcupine fish, but it’s one of the most evolutionarily derived fishes in the sea. So, it has a cranium more like what ours looks like, along with fewer vertebrae; its spinal column is actually shorter than its brain. And they’re one of the most fecund vertebrates in the world; a 4-ft female was recorded as having an estimated 300 million eggs.

Are they endangered?

It’s unknown because they’re not commercially targeted. And as adults they don’t school; younger ones will, but as adults they become loners. So we don’t really know the status of their population.

We’ve been tagging them all over the world. They’re very vulnerable to fishermen’s nets, they get caught in huge numbers [because] they spend a lot of time lying around on top of the ocean. Some of our data is on whether that’s having an impact on their population. There are inklings that it is.

Where do they live?

That’s something we’re working on right now, understanding the global population. They have a huge range. They live in all tropical and temperate oceans, up farther north than the Arctic Circle, and all the way down by Cape Town in South Africa.

Sunfish look flatter and more compact than other fish. Why is that?

The only way to understand [the sunfish] is to study its ancestry. Their design has evolved to be more like an armored tank with a stiff body as opposed to a streamlined torpedo body like other fish. They just look like big puffer fish on steroids. They use mostly their fins for propulsion as opposed to wagging their body.

Sunfish can grow to be more than 10 feet long. Are they aggressive?

They’re not dangerous to people. They will bite if you’re harassing them, but they’re actually very gentle in nature, very passive.

They look lazy, but they’re really industrious. They dive up and down as much as 40 times a day. We recorded them off the Galapagos Islands diving as deep as 1,100 meters [3,600 feet].

So they don’t munch on people?

They’re actually the world’s largest jelly-eater. And people love the sunfish, it’s a lot of people’s favorite fish. There’s poetry, folklore—you can even adopt them.

Watch a National Geographic video of Tierney Thys swimming with molas, talking about her work

Read the National Geographic News story “Emerging Explorer” Hooked on Mysterious Leviathan (2004)

Comments

  1. Cheryllyn Kellum
    United States
    July 24, 2013, 7:31 pm

    Where’s it’s mouth? Where it should be, unlike some of us where everyone in the world knows where it is…. since it is always open!

  2. [...] about these animals I may have to write about them again. For now – a National Geographic blog was written a few weeks ago in response to a really cool photo of an ocean sunfish that started [...]

  3. What Is It? | destroyinfo
    February 18, 2013, 11:51 pm

    [...] Today was a special day. While diving at one of the many points along the jagged coastline, we were “fortunate” enough to see a rare and spectacular open water fish – the ocean sunfish or mola mola. This strange looking creature is one of the most advanced of all the fishes but looks like it was designed by committee. Imagine a disk with its back cut off and two ‘wings’ crudely attached!  At once awkward and graceful, the sunfish feeds mainly on jellyfish and rarely comes close to the coast. Seeing it up close and watching it watch me was  an unforgettable experience.(Read a Q&A with a mola mola expert.) [...]

  4. Tommy Bombon
    United States
    November 3, 2012, 2:20 pm

    So, is this creature that I photographed yesterday lurking on the surface of the water off the coast of California a Mola? https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151232783904828&set=a.51969044827.59357.831114827&type=1&theater&notif_t=photo_comment

  5. Sunfish, Moonfish: It’s all Mola mola
    September 3, 2012, 10:42 pm

    [...] about these animals I may have to write about them again. For now – a National Geographic blog was written a few weeks ago in response to a really cool photo of an ocean sunfish that started [...]

  6. [...] Dr. Tierney Thys, the founder and director of the Ocean Sunfish Tagging and Research Program, told National Geographic that the mola is the world’s heaviest bony fish featuring a fish head and flat… [...]

  7. Joe De La Cerda
    Houston, Texas
    August 16, 2012, 5:38 pm

    I’m SOOOO jealous… amazing photo :)

  8. Tomo
    Fiji
    August 8, 2012, 2:49 pm

    I have seen a lot of Sunfish at the fish market in Fiji and locales love the meet because of the price per kg. They are caught easily by the long-line fishermen. I am very worry about the pop impact and environmental effects for the future.

  9. Thomas Moore
    United States
    August 8, 2012, 2:22 pm

    What’s a Mola?

    I don’t know. What’s a Mola with you?

  10. marie
    Toronto ON
    August 7, 2012, 6:56 pm

    wow – what a wacky looking sweetheart.

    Where the heck is his/her mouth?

    BOINK!

    xo

  11. Mohamed
    Egypt
    August 5, 2012, 2:09 pm

    wow its awsome creature i hope i’ll see it someday <3

  12. Percy
    Montreal
    August 5, 2012, 1:03 pm

    Nature is just like a Pandora box, it is full of wonders, I was a kid back in the 70′s whe I had the chance to see for the first time a real Mola Mola fish in the Museo de Historia Natural in Lima- Peru. I remembered it was so big and so different that it really impressed me. What a magnificent specimen!!

  13. João Francisco
    August 4, 2012, 9:44 am

    Interesting, in Portugal we call it “Moonfish” :)

  14. William Lyons
    South Carolina
    August 4, 2012, 8:19 am

    I think they are called “Sunfish” because they send most of their life feeding in the sunniest part of the oceans.

  15. Deo Domuique
    August 4, 2012, 7:04 am

    Where’s its mouth?

  16. MOLA MOLA NATION
    August 4, 2012, 1:33 am

    Just a recommendation for any Mola Mola fans out there :)
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mola-Mola-Nation/147553458616334

  17. Robert Jones
    Panama City Beach, Fl
    August 3, 2012, 7:12 pm

    Robert Jones I actually got to see one of these in the wild a few years ago about 20 miles out off of Panama City Beach, Fl

  18. Elena Shteyngardt
    Moscow
    August 3, 2012, 2:04 pm

    The picture is pretty amazing! Thanks.

  19. josephBG
    Cavite,PH
    August 2, 2012, 4:09 pm

    a truly nature’s amazing thing

  20. [...] fish, these guys can reach 10 feet long and 5,000 pounds. After the picture became a Facebook hit, National Geographic interviewed Dr. Tierney Thys, a Sunfish expert, about these gentle [...]

  21. Joanne
    Agoura Hills
    August 2, 2012, 12:59 pm

    Saw one of these near Bird Rock at Catalina Island, when scuba diving.

  22. Dotman
    Nigeria
    August 2, 2012, 11:06 am

    Weird

  23. yakobus
    indonesia
    August 2, 2012, 10:48 am

    wowww very incridible picture how old are the fish?
    how the fish can live for along time?

  24. Pedro Rossi
    Brazil
    August 2, 2012, 8:23 am

    Very good!!!

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    August 2, 2012, 7:25 am

    Sunfish, a childhood favorite of mine. Dinosaurs won though, as they usually do.

  26. Hassan
    K s A
    August 2, 2012, 6:37 am

    wondrous creature thank you National Geographic

  27. venkat shiva sai
    hyderabad
    August 2, 2012, 5:23 am

    it very amazing pic

  28. fred
    August 2, 2012, 4:25 am

    Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

  29. Sue Conradie
    Thailand
    August 2, 2012, 4:15 am

    They are amazing creatures, I saw one in Cape Town South Africa about 3 years ago while jetski-ing, it almost looked like a shark fine sticking out of the water but on closer look it was a sunfish. Don’t worry I did turn the jetski off and waited till it was gone before starting up. One of my most amazing experiences in life.

  30. pradeep
    india
    August 2, 2012, 3:54 am

    wat z its life span?????

  31. jace
    ict
    August 2, 2012, 2:52 am

    thats cool that they eat jelly fish if i am reading you right what do jelly fish taste like

  32. Jeremie
    August 2, 2012, 2:22 am

    I do not understand the following statement, “The only way to understand [the sunfish] is to study its ancestry. Their design has evolved…” How do we know the fish’s ancestory and it’s evolution? What is there to study? I wish the author would have elaborated more on this subject.

  33. faiyal
    Maldives
    August 2, 2012, 2:05 am

    http://youtu.be/jJkwPNfPCzg

    Looks like the same thing. This is a video from Maldives recently.

  34. liam
    philippines
    August 2, 2012, 1:59 am

    nice, pretty educational… i really dont know about sunfish till now..

  35. Jimena
    Chile
    August 2, 2012, 1:34 am

    While looking for dolphins, in Mount Monganui, New Zealand, we encounter a Sunfish… Amazing, Huge, peaceful creatures…
    What an experience!
    Love your magazine!!! Cheers!

  36. Josh
    Mt
    August 2, 2012, 1:31 am

    I love nature, and animals, except for sum creepy Phoebus I have. But, anyways why is it when fish and animals get tested for location of mating, or the types of food they eat , that like 300 of the same species get tested y can’t it be only 1. I call that harassment yes new fish and creatures r discovered but quit harassing them. Why do u think sharks attack people on surf boards? Becuz stupid people putting a dummy on a surf board looks like a seal just too watch it jump out of the water that y people get bit becus people look like seals.

  37. Jagat
    Chennai
    August 2, 2012, 12:54 am

    Nice read…Keep growing

  38. Shabnam Aslam
    Syosset, NY
    August 2, 2012, 12:36 am

    I haven’t heard about sunfish before. I wonder why her name is sunfish if she doesn’t look like sun. The picture is pretty amazing. Thanks for the sharing.

  39. Cora
    Stonyplain,Alberta, Canada
    August 2, 2012, 12:35 am

    That’s one neat looking fish!

  40. Harjot
    Jammu
    August 2, 2012, 12:35 am

    I simply lv it ! Its kinda whole new thng :-)

  41. kevin
    USA
    August 2, 2012, 12:33 am

    I don’t think they’ve ever been kept with success in captivity.

  42. Fernando
    NYC
    August 2, 2012, 12:30 am

    Amazing photo!

  43. Marryanne
    México
    August 2, 2012, 12:29 am

    I love mola mola fish. I wish we could know more about them! They’re amazing!

  44. Marian Fortunati
    Tarzana, CA
    August 1, 2012, 8:45 pm

    Check out David Gallup’s painting of a sunfish… It’s terrific!!
    http://www.dgallup.com/cgi-bin/browse.cgi?page=item&cat=8&item=342

    “Mola Mola With Jellies”

  45. veryconfused
    GA USA
    August 1, 2012, 6:35 pm

    His mother claims he looks just like his father. ;-)

    I love this magazine also.

  46. Salma
    Cairo,egyt
    August 1, 2012, 5:51 pm

    Wow it’s an amazing picture and i love your magazine :* <3