The biology and ecology of the ocean sunfish Mola mola: a review of current knowledge and future research perspectives

Abstract

Relatively little is known about the biology and ecology of the world’s largest (heaviest) bony fish, the ocean sunfish Mola mola, despite its worldwide occurrence in temperate and tropical seas. Studies are now emerging that require many common perceptions about sunfish behaviour and ecology to be re-examined. Indeed, the long-held view that ocean sunfish are an inactive, passively drifting species seems to be entirely misplaced. Technological advances in marine telemetry are revealing distinct behavioural patterns and protracted seasonal movements. Extensive forays by ocean sunfish into the deep ocean have been documented and broad-scale surveys, together with molecular and laboratory based techniques, are addressing the connectivity and trophic role of these animals. These emerging molecular and movement studies suggest that local distinct populations may be prone to depletion through bycatch in commercial fisheries. Rising interest in ocean sunfish, highlighted by the increase in recent publications, warrants a thorough review of the biology and ecology of this species. Here we review the taxonomy, morphology, geography, diet, locomotion, vision, movements, foraging ecology, reproduction and species interactions of M. mola. We present a summary of current conservation issues and suggest methods for addressing fundamental gaps in our knowledge.

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Acknowledgments

We are indebted to Francesco Santini for his comments on molid phylogeny and to Toshiyuki Nakatsubo and Rand Rasmussen for their kind contribution of fisheries and bycatch data. We also gratefully acknowledge Mike Johnson, Wolfgang Sterrer, Tao-Jen Kuo, Kamogawa Seaworld and Birdlife International for the photographs used in this review. We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for their constructive advice and suggestions. ECP was supported by the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Environments (WISE) Network. GCH, TKD and VJH were supported by the EcoJel project funded by INTERREG IVA, a component of the European Regional Development Fund. TMT was supported by the Adopt a Sunfish Project and a grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration #7369-02. NQ was funded by a Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) Ph.D. grant SFRH/BD/21354/2005. DWS was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council Oceans 2025 Strategic Research Programme and an MBA Senior Research Fellowship.

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Pope, E.C., Hays, G.C., Thys, T.M. et al. The biology and ecology of the ocean sunfish Mola mola: a review of current knowledge and future research perspectives. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries 20, 471–487 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11160-009-9155-9

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Keywords

  • Teleost
  • Telemetry
  • Foraging ecology
  • Locomotion
  • Diet
  • Range
  • Phylogeny