Listen to the Locals!

Illustration of the new species. Velizar Simeonovski/The Field Museum

People living in the  Solomon Islands have long spoken of a large rat that lives in tress called the vika. It wasn’t till now, however, that scientists recognized the species.  Scientists, using game cameras, recently spotted a vika on Vangunu Island.

The large rodent weighs over 2 pounds and measures 18 inches from nose to tail.

Two things come to mind:

What else is out there that has gone undiscovered?

Local people are better suited to tell us what lives in an area than highly-educated outsiders. Consider the cause of a Maori legend being confirmed:

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New Species

New species are being discovered all the time. I really began thinking of this the other day after reading about a “purple, pig-nosed” frog that was discovered in a remote mountainous region of India.

According to some estimates, a new species is discovered in the Amazon every other day.

Of course, most new species are small and many are plants, but on occasion, something large is discovered. Recently, a giant sunfish named the Hoodwinker Sunfish was discovered. The new species has been found around New Zealand, the south-east coast of Australia, off South Africa and Southern Chile. The fish is enormous and can weigh more than two tons and reach nearly 10 feet in length.

The following is a press release from Murdoch University in Australia dated July 20, 2017:

Marianne Nyegaard from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences uncovered the new species while researching the population genetics of ocean sunfish in the Indo-pacific region.

The previously undescribed species has been named the Hoodwinker Sunfish (Mola tecta).

Iconic ocean sunfishes are the heaviest and most distinctive of all bony fishes, with some species weighing in excess of two tonnes and growing to three metres in length. The newly discovered species is thought to approach a similar size.

The challenging journey to confirm the discovery was a four-year labour of love for Ms Nyegaard, who began her investigations after noticing genetic differences in sunfish samples from the Australian and New Zealand longline fishery.

“A Japanese research group first found genetic evidence of an unknown sunfish species in Australian waters 10 years ago, but the fish kept eluding the scientific community because we didn’t know what it looked like,” Ms Nyegaard said.

“Finding these fish and storing specimens for studies is a logistical nightmare due to their elusive nature and enormous size, so sunfish research is difficult at the best of times. Early on, when I was asked if I would be bringing my own crane to receive a specimen, I knew I was in for a challenging – but awesome – adventure.”

Over a three-year period she collected data from 27 specimens of the new species, at times travelling thousands of miles or relying on the kindness of strangers to take samples of sunfish found stranded on remote beaches.

“The new species managed to evade discovery for nearly three centuries by ‘hiding’ in a messy history of sunfish taxonomy, partially because they are so difficult to preserve and study, even for natural history museums,” Ms Nyegaard said.

“That is why we named it Mola tecta (the Hoodwinker Sunfish), derived from the Latin tectus, meaning disguised or hidden.”

“This new species is the first addition to the Mola genus in 130 years. The process we had to go through to confirm its new species status included consulting publications from as far back as the 1500s, some of which also included descriptions of mermen and fantastical sea monsters.

“We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time. Overall we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the Hoodwinker.”

Similar to its two sister species, Mola mola and Mola ramsayi, the new species has the characteristic truncated appearance of half a fish, but the differences between the three species become clear with growth.

Mola tecta remains sleek and slender even in larger sizes, differing from the other species by not developing a protruding snout, or huge lumps and bumps.

Ms Nyegaard suspects that, as with other sunfish species, feeding takes place during deep dives. The digestive tract contents of three specimens she sampled consisted mostly of salps, a gelatinous sea creature loosely resembling a jellyfish.

Mola tecta appears to prefer cold water, and has so far been found around New Zealand, along the south-east coast of Australia, off South Africa and southern Chile.

Ms Nyegaard’s paper on the new sunfish species has been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society and can be read here.

The research involves collaboration between Murdoch University, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the University of Otago, Hiroshima University and the University of Tokyo.

I have to wonder: If a fish weighing two tons can elude scientists until now, what else could be lurking in our oceans and deep lakes?

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