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Big fish tale: 450 pound sharp tailed mola washed up on North Topsail Beach

An unusual find last week along the eastern North Carolina coast has captured the fascination of many, and, in particular, ichthyologists with N.C. State and a North Carolina museum.

Lily Hughes with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences studies the evolution and biodiversity of fishes. She says a fish known as the sharp tailed mola washed ashore near a fishing pier at North Topsail Beach last Thursday.

“They don’t do this behavior, you know, if they’re healthy,” she explained. “But we’re not exactly sure what happened with this one. We saw some marks on the side that could have been a boat strike but we’re not really sure right now.”

She said the find will be beneficial to researchers hoping to learn more about the species that spends most of its time out in the open ocean.

“They’re actually pretty uncommon in museum collections because a lot of the times when you get to a beached sample it is already starting to decay,” Hughes said, “This one, because it was really cool the last couple of nights, is still in really good condition.”

Giant Ocean Sunfish.m4v

The species, sometimes referred to as a sharp tailed sunfish, is the heaviest bony fish in the world. This one, at 6 feet long and about 450 pounds, doesn’t break a record – they can reach 11 feet and 4,400 pounds. Still, it was a big team effort to collect the fish from the beach.

Hughes said, “There were folks from the local sea turtle hospital coming to help. Some Marines from Camp Lejeune came down to help carry it onto the truck. And pretty much everyone I have shown a picture of this fish to is just, like, totally fascinated by it.”

Fascinated because, well, apart from its size, it’s a pretty unusual looking creature.

“They don’t look like any other animal on Earth,” She said, “They have these little weird fins that don’t look like other fish. They look like giant pancakes with fins.”

Hughes says the find offers them a rare opportunity to study the mola, which hasn’t often been the subject of much research. DNA samples have been collected and the fish is now being preserved for study.