Why the Ocean Sunfish is a magnificent beast

Someone wrote this angry, misinformed rant about the Ocean Sunfish, and it’s now spreading all over facebook. It’s kind of a good example of how ignorance can be popular, if it’s loud and nasty enough. Here’s a short sample:

They are the world’s largest boney fish, weighing up to 5,000 pounds. And since they have very little girth, that just makes them these absolutely giant fucking dinner plates that God must have accidentally dropped while washing dishes one day and shrugged his shoulders at because no one could have imagined this would happen. AND WITH NO PURPOSE. EVERY POUND OF THAT IS A WASTED POUND AND EVERY FOOT OF IT (10 FT BY 14 FT) IS WASTED SPACE.

It’s appalling. The guy who wrote it seems to know nothing about biology, or evolution, or fish in general, or this species in particular…but he could assemble an angry screed driven by his lack of knowledge and his subjective dislike of this one animal. I think he has a future working for Fox News.

Fortunately, someone who is better informed has decided to correct him. It’s a long and detailed description of sunfish biology, well worth reading. Again, just a taste:

Many, many animals suffer from public misperception and bad PR. Previously I have discussed how Komodo dragons are misrepresented as incompetent hunters by media, and how Atlantic bluefin tuna are almost entirely seen as a luxury dish and not as the endangered predator it is. But there are animals that have it even worse. These are species which are wrongly labeled as being just plain useless, and they include today’s subject: the Ocean Sunfish, or Mola (Mola mola).

In this case, it’s almost entirely due to a Facebook rant (http://brobible.com/life/article/facebook-rant-ocean-sunfish-molamola/) that went viral. It’s now almost impossible to see a post on ocean sunfish without seeing that rant posted. Posted by Scout Burns, the original rant has been taken down….but its text is everywhere on the Internet on every social media site. More than a few people actually have stated they also genuinely hate sunfish due to reading that rant, or that they will also will throw rocks at one. People have gone as far as to edit the Wikipedia page on ocean sunfish to further reflect their opinions on this species: someone added that a number of sunfish migrated to North America to vote for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential elections.

It seems to make sense at first: how can any animal that looks like a decapitated head can be competent at surviving? But this is a gross misunderstanding of what evolution is. Evolution has no standards except reproductive fitness, and the very existence of a species is proof enough that it’s not useless.

But there are worse problems with the rant. Almost everything about that rant is wrong. Most of the information on it is actually from outdated research, or outright unsupported by anything. Yet it is taken as fact by most of the people who read it.

So, having played advocate for two animals that were either dismissed as incompetent or ignored entirely, I think it’s about time I spoke up in defence of a not-really-useless fish that looks like an amputee.

Read the rest. It’s good stuff.


  1. avalus says

    I saw a (juvenile, I think) Sunfish in a large aquarium once. They are beautiful, majestic beings.

    This rant is … just terribly bad. And somehow a nice summary of human arrogance towards nature. “Pinnacle of creation”, my ass!

  2. PaulBC says

    I never considered them anything other than magnificent. For some reason, they make me think of barrage balloons, though they are not really the same shape (and I know as little about either of them).

  3. PaulBC says

    I assume the post was written by someone who likes sunfish. It’s pretty good satire in the vein of Onion columns that express a vehement opinion about an obscure topic most people don’t have an opinion about.

    (Stating the obvious here I hope, but it is often hard to pick up the meta-satire.)

  4. stwriley says

    I’ve always thought Molas were amazingly cool. What a bizarre thing for someone to hate. What on Earth did a sunfish ever do to him to engender such vitriol?

  5. PaulBC says

    On second thought, I’ll go with “majestic.” That is, slow-moving, serving no obvious purpose, and vaguely ridiculous. The hallmarks of most of those addressed as “Your Majesty.”

  6. woozy says

    I’ll admit when I first saw a sunfish my first that was “wow, what a strange ungainly weird creature” But that just made me love it immediately. And I read this rant and …. I don’t get this weird attitude. It’s basically “I see this strange (what appears in my ignorant lack of knowledge) inefficient and weird thing…. So I hate it. Because apparently unless something is slick or efficient I think it is awkward and weird. …. And that’s a valid reason to hate something.”

    I don’t get it. I don’t think its funny. I think it’s ignorant and ugly and reveling in being ugly. And …. I don’t get it.

  7. Ed Seedhouse says

    I get a laugh out of using “no purpose” as an insult. So far as I can tell nothing in nature has a “purpose” and evolution definitely doesn’t. Purpose is an idea in human minds. It isn’t actually out there in the world.

    You might say that an animal chasing down food has a “purpose”, though not having language or at least a human language, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t think about “purpose” at all.

    Of course I think life, the universe, and everything have no purpose and are meaningless but, unlike some people, I think that’s a good thing. Life isn’t a struggle, it’s a dance.

  8. chrislawson says

    Someone applying contemporary Western beauty standards to a fish says more about the someone than the fish.

  9. chrislawson says

    I always thought sunfish looked sleek and graceful, like a manta ray with vertical symmetry instead of horizontal. This video only confirms it for me, plus it shows an amazing sequence of this predator diving deep to get its skin cleaned by smaller fish:

  10. woozy says

    “Personally I love to hate magpies.”

    What…? I love and adore magpies! They are the honey badgers of the Corvidae!