Shoddy Self-Esteem Sunfish: Anthropomorphizing a Sad Sad Fish

Don’t ride an ocean sunfish.

I’m sorry, but why would you ever thinking getting on top of a big fish is a good idea? It doesn’t even sound impressive to brag about to your buddies: “Hey dude, guess what I did today? I rode a fish!” Uh, cool story bro.

Predictably, after this video made the rounds of the internet, people had lots of comments to make: about how it was cruelty to wildlife and how the man was an idiot (and my personal favorite, a well-intentioned comment that claimed the fish was struggling to get to the surface to breathe. The fish). While yes, the guy should’ve never gotten on the sunfish (Mola mola), and yep, he was an idiot, and alright,  it’s not even worth the physical effort because just check out that guy’s arms moving him along as much as the Mola is!, I have a different reason for why we shouldn’t ride sunfish: Think about the Mola’s feelings.

It might look (kinda) cute and overwhelmingly clueless, but don’t underestimate the Mola. Under that derpy face lies a mass of seething angst. And you will only perpetuate the problem by getting on that fish.

My response to all this is to christen the Mola with what I think is a very well-deserved moniker, the Shoddy Self-Esteem Sunfish. It makes sense, I swear:

1. Imagine: how would you feel if you were the heaviest bony fish in the world? And people hopped on your back and laughed at you?

How would you feel? Pic: Flickr, n8agrin

How would you feel?
Pic: Flickr, n8agrin

That’s right: Molas are the heaviest bony fish in the world. One caught off Japan in 1998 clocked in at a staggering 5071 pounds. (That’s three times the world’s heaviest man, so I guess the Mola beats us at something?) But it’s really really heavy, to put it mildly. Hardly at the level of a blue whale, but heavy enough to garner an official title in the world records. Ouch.

2. And there’s that face. I know, I know, I’ve made fun of it before but I just can’t help myself- and apparently neither can anyone else. In a highly scientific poll conducted by yours truly, five people said the Mola was “really ugly,” and two said “a little cute in an ugly way.” See? I know if someone said that to me, my self-esteem would be down in the dumps for sure. It doesn’t help that that face is well, it’s basically all you see. Scientists have described Molas as “swimming heads,” and jeez, does that conjure up some creepy mental images.

why Pic: Flickr, wererabbit

What a lousy choice of words.
But some Europeans apparently didn’t think so: the German names for molas translates into “swimming head” and the Polish name means “head alone.”
Pic: Flickr, wererabbit

But it’s true! The Mola’s lack of a proper caudal fin is probably one of the first things someone looking at it would notice. Instead of an elongated tail end, the Mola has that long, stiff thing, known as the clavus. It’s the only fish to possess one of these, but the mola seems to be able to get along just fine with this pseudo-tail, although I suspect when it looks at all the other “normal” fishes, it feels pretty self-conscious.

This clavus is from a Mola mola who got stuck on the bow of a ship off of Australia. Ouch. Pic:

This clavus is from a Mola mola who got stuck on the bow of a ship off Australia. Ouch.
Pic: taken by Paul Ovenden mola

3. Besides being questionably attractive, Molas have parasites everywhere. No really, everywhere. They’re notorious for their heavy parasite loads, because over 40 genera of parasites having been found on them! And those parasites are

Sea lice on the mola’s tongue Pic: australianmuseum. net

Sea lice on a mola’s tongue.
Pic: Kerryn Parkinson

Eye parasites on the mola Pic:

Eye parasites on the mola.

Describing a dissection that he conducted of a Mola, a veterinarian wrote, “The tiny brain sat within a fluid filled cavity in the cartilaginous head. Numerous helminth parasites were present within this cavity.” Ugh. Ew. I don’t think I’m that squeamish, but imagine little worm-like creatures crawling around in your brain fluid, and if you don’t feel a little squicked out, then you are a stronger person than me. Sorry molas. That’s gross.

And we know the molas are self-conscious about these parasites. Why else would they demonstrate their signature peculiar basking behavior at the surface of the water? Sure, part of the time they might be trying to warm themselves, but molas actively following birds have also been witnessed. That’s right, they’re trailing gulls and the like around in the hopes that a bird will take pity on them and eat off some of those nasty nasty parasites.

Mola demonstrating its characteristic “basking behavior.” There is evidence that molas bask for thermo-regulation, in order to warm themselves after diving down into cold deep waters, but also evidence for the basking for parasite removal. Pic: Flickr, k schneider

Mola demonstrating its characteristic basking behavior.
“Why don’t any birds love me???”
Pic: Flickr, k schneider

Birds picking off parasites from Mola molas (indicated by white arrows). Pic: Abe et al. 2012

Birds picking off parasites from Mola molas at the surface, indicated by white arrows.
Pic: Abe et al. 2012

The mola has even got reasons beyond the superficial to feel insecure: scientists can’t quite agree on its exact phylogeny. It’s accepted that the family Molidae contains 3 genera, one of which is Mola, which contains only our Mola mola. But the position of Molidae in relation to the porcupine-fish, pufferfish, and trunkfish is still not determined, with one scientist even suggesting that the entire order of Tetraodontiformes should be divided, based on recent genetic analyses. And I know I like to know exactly where I stand in the world – think about how Molas have got to be feeling. Maybe I should’ve called them the Existential Crisis Sunfish.

But who am I really? Pic: Flickr, Moosealope

But who am I really?
Pic: Flickr, Moosealope

The moral of the story?

Shoddy Self-Esteem Sunfishes need some love. And that doesn’t include riding on them.


But I do love Molas!:

  • Check out my Mola-related tweets @catherine_chenn