Sunfish Types: A Complete List of All Species

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 25th September 2023

Large Mola Mola Sunfish at Cleaning Station in Bali / Martin Voeller via Istock
Large Mola Mola Sunfish at Cleaning Station in Bali / Martin Voeller via Istock

Sunfish are often referred to as mola, thanks to their millstone-like, circular shape; in Latin, mola means millstone.

This is also the name of the genus in which most sunfish are included, namely Mola, under the Molidae family.

These fish are extremely popular, especially worldwide, mainly thanks to their taste and usefulness. S

pecifically, every part of a sunfish can be used in the kitchen, while some can be used in traditional medicine.

Illustration of Mola Mola
Illustration of Mola Mola / image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Among marine biologists, sunfish are known for their impressive growth rate.

According to statistics, they usually gain about 500 g in a single day.

One specimen, however, could gain roughly 373 kg in a little over a year (15 months).

If this information piques your interest, keep reading as we talk about every sunfish species on the planet!

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5. Ocean Sunfish

Sunfish or common mola (Mola mola) swimming in the ocean
Sunfish or common mola (Mola mola) swimming in the ocean | Nuno Valadas via Getty Images

The ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is known as the common mola, the type species of the Mola genus.

Mola mola is among the largest bony fish in the world; at the top of the list stands another sunfish species, Mola alexandrini.

It is currently listed as a vulnerable species without any specifics or estimates regarding the remaining specimens.

This fish has three names with three different meanings.

It is called a sunfish in English as it’s known for sunbathing at the water’s surface; mola is from the Latin word for millstone, referring to most specimens’ gray color, round body, and rough texture; and finally, moon fish in a variety of languages (Portuguese, German, Greek, and more) due to its round, moon-like shape.

Despite the species’ seemingly delicate appearance, the ocean sunfish is a generalist predator.

Ocean Sunfish
Ocean sunfish / OpenCage via Wikimedia Commons CC-ASA 2.5

These fish weigh about 545-2,205 lbs, so they must eat a lot; as such, they feast daily on crustaceans, squid, larvae, and small fish, especially salps and sea jellies.

Another interesting fact about the ocean sunfish is that female specimens can produce up to 300 million eggs at a time – more eggs than any vertebrate animal in the world.

However, most likely due to intensive hunting in the parts of the world where the sunfish is a delicacy (Japan, Taiwan, and Korea), the species is now listed as vulnerable.

In the EU, for example, selling raw fish or products containing anything from the Molidae family of sunfish is forbidden.

4. Giant Sunfish

Giant Sunfish
Giant Sunfish | Rob Harcourt via Fishes of Australia

The giant sunfish (Mola alexandrini) is also referred to as the bumphead sunfish, short sunfish, southern ocean sunfish, southern sunfish, or Ramsay’s sunfish.

It is the largest living bony fish species considering mass, attributed to a dead specimen found in 2021 near the Azores.

The specimen totaled around 6049 lbs.

It can also reach lengths of about 11 feet. As such, the name giant sunfish is a perfect fit for this member of the Molidae family.

Characteristic to the genus, the giant sunfish has a flat, round body adorned with large fins.

Their mouths are small, and their beaks look like those of parrots.

A giant sunfish swimming amongst a small school of pilot fish
A giant sunfish swimming amongst a small school of pilot fish / Erik van der Goot via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

According to research, the teeth in their beaks have fused as the animal has evolved.

Mola alexandrini and Mola mola are different from each other by their ossicles and vertical bands of denticles.

The giant sunfish lacks a vertical band and has fewer ossicles.

While all sunfish species enjoy their names due to the fact that they bask underneath the sun, Mola alexandrini might have the upper hand.

The larvae of the giant sunfish are star-shaped, resembling the sun.

Specifically, its larvae (including fry) resemble stars covered in fins, giving them the appearance of little suns.

Another very interesting fact about the giant sunfish is that, despite being known as the largest living bony fish species, its body consists mostly of cartilage.

The latter is probably an adaptation, providing buoyancy and making up for the absence of a swim bladder.

3. Sharptail Sunfish

Sharptail Sunfish
Sharptail Sunfish | H. Sugiyama via Fishes of Australia

The sharptail sunfish (Masturus lanceolatusis) part of another genus, namely Masturus.

The Molidae sunfish family includes two extinct and three extant genera – Mola, Masturus, and Ranzania, all included in this article.

Masturus lanceolatus is often referred to as a trunkfish, point-tailed sunfish, or sharptail mola.

It is the only species in the Masturus genus and, unlike the common mola, features a pseudo-tail, which is basically a projection on the species’ clavus, a sharptail.

Like the giant sunfish, the sharptail mola can grow up to 11 feet long.

However, in terms of mass, it weighs about 4,400 lbs.

Even though smaller than the giant sunfish, this species is still one of the largest bony fish that swim in the Earth’s oceans.

Mounted specimen of Sharptail Sunfish at the Museu Nacional de Historia Natural de Lisboa
Mounted specimen of Sharptail Sunfish at the Museu Nacional de Historia Natural de Lisboa / Hectonichus via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

While most sunfish species are known to bask in the sun, a behavior linked to regaining body temperature after cold water dives, recharging oxygen storages, and getting rid of parasites, the sharptail sunfish is not really adept at basking.

The species is rarely observed at the water’s surface and would spend more time at depths of around 16 to 656 feet during the day and 330 to 820 feet at night.

They can, however, descend to 2,200 and even 3,300 feet, possibly traveling distances equivalent to 6.2 miles in a single day.

2. Slender Sunfish

Slender Sunfish
Slender Sunfish | J Kemper via Fishes of Australia

The slender sunfish (Ranzania laevis) is another species that’s not part of the main genus but is instead categorized under the Ranzania genus.

It is the only living species of the said genus. It is currently listed as least concern in terms of conservation.

Ranzania laevis is one of the smallest species of sunfish, with lengths of up to 3.3 feet.

The species is known for regularly getting stranded near the region of Albany in Western Australia.

This is where the first specimen in South Australia was found in 1944.

Stranding refers to the phenomenon when animals strand themselves on the shore, usually on beaches.

This is related to water temperature changes and geomagnetic disturbances, given that the fish strand themselves purposely.

Slender Sunfish (Ranzania Laevis)
Slender Sunfish (Ranzania Laevis) / NOAA Observer Program via Wikipedia Public Domain

Despite its drastically reduced size (compared to its sunfish relatives), the species’ diet suggests that it’s a very fast and agile predator.

Specifically, the slender sunfish feed mainly on squid, which is part of the Ommastrephidae family.

The latter is known for consisting of fast species.

1. Hoodwinker Sunfish

Hoodwinker Sunfish
Hoodwinker Sunfish | Cesar Villarroel via Vimeo

The hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) is the final species on our list.

Its name translates to hidden millstone from Latin, the tecta particle meaning hidden.

The species is characterized like this due to the fact that it has been discovered quite recently, remaining hidden so far among other sunfish specimens and species.

Specifically, Mola tecta was first discovered in 2015 in New Zealand.

This species is characterized by its flat body with a rather symmetrical oval shape.

Unlike the giant sunfish, Mola tecta can be described as more elongated.

This difference can be best noticed in large specimens, however.

Mola Tecta or Hoodwinker Sunfish from the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Mola Tecta or Hoodwinker Sunfish from the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center / Naturalis Biodiversity Center via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

The hoodwinker sunfish is medium-sized, growing up to about 7.9 feet long. In terms of weight, it can grow up to about 4,400 lbs.

Mola tecta is different from the other two species in the Mola genus in that it has a sleek body shape, is slimmer, and doesn’t have a snout that sticks out.

Mola tecta is the first new sunfish species discovered in 130 years.

Its existence was hinted at about ten years before its actual discovery.

Specifically, researchers found genetic information suggesting a new Mola species in 2004.

Still, they didn’t come across subjects or information supporting these findings.


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