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Seven surprising sunfish facts

Posted by on February 8, 2017

By Natasha Phillips, PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast studying the diet & behaviour of ocean sunfish.

Last summer Natasha spent two months studying ocean sunfish in Camogli, Italy, with the support of a Travel Grant from the Royal Society of Biology. Grants applications for 2017 are currently open.

Over the last two years I have seen hundreds of sunfish and these close encounters have given me plenty of opportunity to note a few things about their unusual behaviour. Here are the seven strangest things I have learned about sunfish so far:

Cheeks puffed out pre-grunt

 1. Sunfish are noisy! It may sound strange, but fish really can make noises (a useful communication tool in the marine environment as sound travels more easily through water than air). Our sunfish grumble (a lot!) in a disgruntled fashion, especially when we weigh them, (but then no-one likes having their weight read out loud I suppose?)

2. They can throw mucus a distance of several feet! I’m pretty sure this is an unintended consequence of being very mucus-y fish with powerful flapping fins, so if anyone else is planning on working with them, beware of flying gunk – it gets everywhere: clothes/arms/ears/hair etc. eugh.

3. Sunfish can projectile poop. Yes.. I was not prepared for that either. We were trying to collect some faecal samples for gut content analysis and things may have got out of hand (more literally than I like to remember!) also hysterically funny! The only issue is that sunfish poo is bright orange and smells appalling (no one expects faecal samples to smell good, but this was unbelievable).

4. Although they look smooth, beneath the mucus layer, the skin of sunfish is very rough to the touch so if a flapping fin catches your arm, it’s exfoliating to say the least, like being towelled off with sanding paper.

5. Sunfish blink. They have a strong white muscle around the eye socket that they can use to wipe the eye or pull it back in if feeling threatened. Bit disconcerting when they wink at you… then shower you with slime/poo/sea water. Nice trick.
6. They are strangely curious fish, frequently swimming right up to the camera or hovering just under the boat looking up at us. The fishermen sometimes use brooms to try push them away and prevent tangling!

7. Sunfish have a sense of humour. Okay, maybe I made this one up, but I watched my colleague wrestle a particularly large one into the weighing tarpaulin and get slapped around the face for his trouble by a large fin… slapped by a wet fish! Needless to say I think the fish won that battle.

If you see a stranded sunfish please contact me (contact Natasha). For further photos and project updates read my RSB Travel Grant report, subscribe to my blog, or follow me on Twitter.

RSB Travel Grants are now open for applications. Apply by 31st March for up to £500 towards biological study, teaching or research abroad.

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