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Today’s news contained an astonishing (albeit rather sad) piece of news concerning the Tetraodontiforme order of fish.

In December 2021, a dead giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) was discovered in the ocean off Faial Island (which is part of the Azores–a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic). “Giant sunfish” is the common name for this sort of sunfish–but this time it was more than a name. The dead fish was enormous. When scientists dragged it to shore and weighed it with a special forklift, they discovered it had a mass of 2,744 kilograms (6,050 pounds), which means it is the largest teleost (bony fish) ever recorded (although, obviously, some long extinct fossil species were much larger). The fish was 3.59 meters long and had a huge blunt contusion on its head which was clearly caused by a boat collision (as evinced by the fact that there were fragments of boat paint on the affected area).

Scientists are still studying the specimen (indeed, they only just released word of it to the world) and a full necropsy has not yet been performed to determine the cause of death. Perhaps a boat hit the fish after it was dead. Still, it doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to start connecting the dots (which is to say, I have a feeling the fish was killed by a fast moving boat–a fate which is all to common among the larger and faster rorquals). The death of this giant is a tragedy in its own right. Yet it is stunning to me that we only just found the largest specimen of bony fish on record. The ocean still abounds with life and miraculous secrets. It could recover… if only humankind would allow such a thing!

A few years ago, I wrote about Mola alexandrini’s close relative Mola mola, the ocean sunfish (which I misidentified as the world’s largest bony fish). Obviously I was mistaken! However that post summarizes what we know about the way both these pelagic giants live. It also addresses baby sunfish–for both species go through a larval stage when the 2 millimeter long babies (!) drift around as part of the plankton. Weighing less than a gram, the li’l baby sunfish are spherical and covered with translucent triangular spikes to deter predators. The sunfish got its name because it likes to sunbathe near the ocean’s surface (another piece of evidence in determining how the Azores giant specimen met its end), however, I think the little ones actually look like the suns drawn in Renaissance woodcuts.

I will keep you updated when (or if) we learn more, but in the meantime I hope you are struck with wonder by these magnificent denizens of the ocean (and, if you are a boater or mariner, I hope you drive your vessel with care and consideration).

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

Longtime readers of this blog probably think that my favorite order of fish are the catfish (siluriformes), a vast order of fascinating freshwater fish which have based their success on mastering sensory perception, or possibly the flatfish (pleuronectiformes) whose predator/prey dichotomy and tragicomic frowns are featured heavily in my elegiac artwork about the decline of the oceans.  Readers who have really read closely might suspect the lungfish or the ghost knife fish.  Yet, actually, I haven’t written a great deal about my personal favorite order of fishes because they are so eclectic and eccentric that they are hard to write about.  The Tetraodontiformes are an ancient order of teleosts (rayfin fish) which apparently originated on the reefs of the mid to late Cretaceous (during the age of dinosaurs).   There are currently 10 extant families in the order, but the Tetradontiformes are not closely related to other bony fish.

The Yellow Boxfish (Ostracion cubicus)

So what are these ten families of exciting weirdo fish? Wikipedia lists them alphabetically for us!

  • Aracanidae — deepwater boxfishes
  • Balistidae — triggerfishes
  • Diodontidae — porcupinefishes
  • Molidae — ocean sunfishes
  • Monacanthidae — filefishes
  • Ostraciidae — boxfishes
  • Tetraodontidae — pufferfishes
  • Triacanthidae — triplespines
  • Triacanthodidae — spikefishes
  • Triodontidae — Threetooth puffer

Triggerfish, pufferfish, boxfish, filefish, cowfish, enormous weird sunfish…there is such a realm of wonder, beauty, and ichthyological fascination among these groups that it is hard to know where to start (although the Mola mola, which I have written about, is a pretty good headliner).  The intelligent, colorful, and truculent triggerfish (Balistidae), in particular, are the source of endless delight.

Clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

I will write more about all of these in turn, but, before we get into that, it is worth highlighting some shared features of the Tetraodontiformes.  These fish tend to have extremely rigid bodies which means they move differently from the quicksilver darting which other fish employ.   They rely on fluttering their pectoral, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins to move (comparatively) slowly, albeit with extreme precision. Most Tetraodontiformes are masters of armor or other defensive mechanisms (toxins, spines, pop-up bone locks, and, um, self-inflation). Because of their tropical reef lifestyle and the nature of their defenses these fish often tend to be extraordinarily colorful.

Snipefish (Halimochirugus centriscoides)
(tetradon nirgoviridis)

Now is not the time to get into the details of all of these fish.  Today’s post is mostly a teaser of things to come…but believe me, it will be worth it.  The Tetraodontiformes are truly astonishing.  Their colors and patterns do not just put most artists to shame, they put most 1980s artists to shame.  And their vivid beauty and astonishing appearance isn’t even the most amazing thing about them.  Stay tuned!

The Ornate Boxfish (Aracana ornata)

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with school of wimplefish

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with school of wimplefish

My biggest blogging regret last year was not writing more about fish.  Ferrebeekeeper has traditionally addressed fish more-or-less exclusively by describing catfish (the order Siluriformes).  Only occasionally have I mentioned other sorts of fish–like the bizarre oarfish or the gigantic extinct Leedsichthys, but all of that is about to change!  In order to enliven 2015 (and celebrate the extraordinary beauty, diversity, and complexity of the natural world), we are going to write about all sorts of fish from now on!  Ichthyophiles rejoice!  And, if, for some perverse reason, you do not love fishes—ancient, ancestral, beautiful, and sacred—then Ferrebeekeeper is out to convert you!


To start out on this enormous topic we are starting with an enormous fish—Mola mola, the common ocean sunfish.  Some of my American readers may know sunfish as the endearing little freshwater fish which live in ponds and small rivers everywhere.  However the ocean sunfish is nothing like bluegills, bass, and crappies (er, except for the fact that it is indeed also a fish).  The Mola mola is the largest bony fish in the world in terms of mass.  It lives in tropical and temperate waters around the planet ranging from Norway in the north to Patagonia in the south (and continuously east and west).  The first time I saw a mola fish I had an unreasoning moment of horror that a huge shark had bitten the poor fish in half!  The molidae lack caudal fins—which gives them the appearance of giant truncated heads. To swim, the fish relies on large powerful dorsal and anal fins (although the clavus of the sunfish is a sort of pseudofin).  Because of this unique anatomy, the great fish is as taller than it is long.  And it can be quite tall indeed:  the largest specimens measure 4.2 m (14 feet) from fin tip to fin tip, although they are a more modest 3.3 m (11 feet) in length.  The sunfish is very heavily built and weighs up to 2,300 kg (5,100 lb) in mass.  Among fish, only the largest cartilaginous fish are bigger.

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with human diver

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) with human diver

To reach this prodigious weight, the sunfish is an omnivore.  It eats ocean grass, small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, however, most of all, the great fish feeds on jellyfish and salps (free-swimming tunicates).  Adults lose the ability to open and close their mouth–which forms into a beak-like structure (with four teeth fusing into a sort of funnel).  Sunfish do not have swim bladders. Additionally, they have only 16 vertebrae, the smallest number among all fish (though not among vertebrates: some amphibians have only a single vertebra).


Adult sunfish are too large for most animals to prey on, however they are sometimes eaten by sharks and killer whales.  Sea lions will occasionally tear off sunfish fins for fun and then leave the poor finless fish to die! Sunfish fry are smaller and thus vulnerable to a much greater number of predators.  To protect themselves, Mola mola fry take the shape of stars covered with spikes!  Just try swallowing a dodecahedron, and you will learn how these creatures survive long enough to become the largest teleosts!

Although Mola mola fry (pictured, greatly enlarged) hardly start out very big!

Although Mola mola fry (pictured, greatly enlarged) hardly start out very big!

Naturally, the practice of swallowing sunfish has been readily adopted by our own voracious species.  Sunfish are eaten by humans in East Asia (although there is an unresolved debate about whether they contain toxins like their close relatives the pufferfish).  Additionally they are also threatened by plastic bags, which they eat in the mistaken belief that they are jellyfish, and by fishers who catch them accidentally and then throw them away dead as by-catch.  Because they are primarily pelagic (living in the deep ocean) their numbers have never been accurately calculated, so we don’t know if they are endangered (!) but there are certainly far fewer these days than there used to be.

Here's an awesome iron-on patch from Etsy, in case you want your own sunfish

Here’s an awesome iron-on patch from Etsy, in case you want your own sunfish

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2023