The ocean sunfish – of which Mola mola is the scientific name – is a curious beast. It looks like a child’s drawing of a fish, probably less realistic than any other fish. But, it does indeed exist, basking in the warm surface waters of all the major oceans of the world. It is both the largest and most fecund bony fish, one 3.1m giant weighing in at 2235kg, and a (considerably smaller) female found to contain an unbelievable 300 million eggs. I’ve never actually seen one in the wild, and was sceptical about their existence until the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity a couple of years ago, where I saw some tiddlers in one of the remarkable aquaria at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.
The ocean sunfish. Yes, it’s really real. Photo from US NOAA.
Perhaps not the most obvious title for a blog, then. I suppose I could argue that it’s all because mola is Latin for millstone, and I’m writing from a city – Sheffield – littered with the things thanks to its rich industrial heritage and gritstone geology. But in fact there is some logic to my choice.
First, I needed something to reflect the major themes I intend to write about – biodiversity, marine biology, human impacts on ecosystems, and a bit of science-policy, and indeed the politics of science, too. A weird fish covers the first couple obviously enough, and symbolises the third – the sunfish is unusual in that it is not targeted by any commercial fishery, but I like the image of it drifting around, a passive observer of the havoc wrought upon marine ecosystems by the world’s fishing fleets, which have over the centuries systematically driven down the biomass, average body size, and trophic level of ocean life on a global scale. (Subject, perhaps, for a future blog.)
As for the more political side of science, well… Trawling an old fish book for bits of life history data in my first job as a fresh-faced biology graduate, I read a remarkable fact about the sunfish. Its skin, apparently, will resist a .22 calibre bullet, which sounded pretty impressive at the time. (It was, in fact, the second most impressive fact I found in that book, after the fish so poisonous it could ‘kill a tree’.)
Now, of course, after years of PhD, post-doc and now fellowship work, I realise that deflecting bullets is the minimum requirement for an academic scientist’s skin, which must also contend with habitual rejection of papers and grant applications, constant criticism, petty squabbling and back-biting and other forms of ‘healthy debate’. The sunfish, then, seems a reasonable role model.
So, as you can imagine, I’ve a lot to get off my chest. I hope that I will be able to stick to the point, for the most part, and write interesting things about the International Year of Biodiversity (this year, in case you weren’t aware), the psychology of bird watching, and the surprising effects of nuclear power stations on marine fish populations. But I hope too that you’ll bear with me on occasions if I venture off into discussions of the tyranny of Impact Factors, a typology of climate change denial (including, perhaps, a defence of the indiscreet email), and the use and abuse of statistical graphics. And if you choose to comment, rest assured that my sunfish skin will cope with whatever you throw at me.