Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Osteichthyses (the bony fishes)

Order: Tetraodoniformes (trigger fish, boxfish, porcupine fish, puffers)

Family: Molidae

Genus, Species: Mola mola, Mola tecta, Mola alexandrini, Mola ramsayi, Masturus lanceolatus, Ranzania laevis.

Presently, six species are recognized within the family Molidae including: the common mola, Mola mola (Linnaeus 1758), Mola ramsayi (Giglioli 1883), Mola alexandrini (Ranzani 1839), Mola tecta (Nyegaard et al. 2017), the sharp-tailed mola, Masturus lanceolatus (Lienard 1840) and the slender mola, Ranzania laevis (Pennant 1776). All Mola ramsayi populations may turn out to be Mola alexandrinihowever more data are needed to confirm this statement. New species of Ranzania have yet to be formally described.

Throughout the world, a number of intriguing common names exist for ocean sunfishes including:

  • Poisson lune (France) (meaning “moon fish”)
  • Schwimmender kopf (German) (meaning “swimming head”)
  • Putol (Philippines) (Bisaya dialect for “cut short”)
  • Manbo マンボウ (Japanese)
  • Toppled car fish (Taiwanese)
  • Bezador (Spanish)
  • Makua (Hawaiian)

More names…


basking ocean sunfish


The common name “sunfish” is used to describe the marine family, Molidae, as well as the freshwater family, Centrarchidae. The common names “ocean sunfish” and “mola” refer only to the family Molidae and can be applied all three Molidae species.

The word mola comes from Latin and means millstone–in reference to these fishes’ roundish shape. The common name “ocean sunfish” comes from their habit of lying atop the surface of the ocean appearing to sunbathe.

sunfish sighting map


All species of sunfish are found in all tropical and temperate ocean basins.

While there is considerable overlap, there do appear to be specific preferences depending on species.

With insight gleaned from satellite tagging studies, ultrasonic tagging and our internet sighting form, we are starting to piece together the seasonal distribution of ocean sunfish populations throughout the world ocean. For example Mola mola in the Western Pacific off Japan, were recorded moving from Kamogawa Japan northwards to the Kuril Islands off Russia (Dewar et al. 2010) during the summer months. In Indonesia sunfish tagged in Bali were found to move eastward along frontal margins during the wet season (Thys et al. 2015). In the Eastern Pacific, individuals tagged in Central and Southern California migrate as far south as Baja California during the fall and winter months (Thys et al. 2016). In the Western Atlantic, individuals tagged off Nantucket and Florida in the summer months moved into the Gulf of Mexico (Potter et al. 2011; Potter & Howell 2010) while in the Eastern Atlantic, sunfish tagged off the UK moved south to Spain to the Gulf of Cadiz (Souza et al 2017; others). Sunfish off South Africa move offshore but don’t exhibit substantial latitudinal migrations (Hays et al. 2009).

The northernmost record is from 70∘ 44′ N off northern Norway dating back to December 1881 (see Frafjord et al 2017 for more details)

Mola mola (common mola)

Mola mola (Common mola)

The most common and widespread of ocean sunfish in the northern hemisphere is Mola mola. These fish, like all ocean sunfishes, appear as if their bodies have been somehow truncated leaving them little more than a large head punctuated with set of long dorsal and anal fins sweeping it along like a pair of vertical parentheses. The body is less than twice as long as it is deep.

Mola mola have a rounded tail when they are juveniles which can become scalloped as they mature and become larger. Their scales are multi-cusped and jagged making their skin very gritty like rough sandpaper. They are covered with copious amounts of mucus and typically silvery in color with a slight opalescent sheen although their skin can exhibit strikingly changeable, light and dark spotty patterns. Their clavus is supported by 8-9 ossicles and these ossicles are narrower than the space between them.

Mola alexandrini (bump-head mola)

Mola alexandrini is similar to Mola mola particularly in its juvenile stages but diverges as it matures by retaining a rounded clavus. (M. mola develops a wavy clavus in its largest size.) Their rounded clavus (pseudo-tail section) is supported by 14-24 (average 17) fin rays and 8-15 (average 12) ossicles, an enlarged bulbous head, chin bump and rectangular scales.

Mola ramsayi (short ocean sunfish)

Mola ramsayi (short ocean sunfish)

Etsuro et al 2017 suggests that Mola ramsayi be replaced by Mola alexandrini (see characteristics above). Mola ramsayi, commonly known as the short or southern ocean sunfish, has been recorded in numerous locations in the northern hemisphere. Investigations continue to see if Mola ramsayi should be fully retired as there remains some inconsistencies in some descriptions as well as numerous individuals that have a bump head and a wavy clavus—a mix of characters from the Mola mola and Mola alexandrini/Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta (hoodwinker sunfish)

Mola tecta reside in the southern hemisphere, with records from South America, South Africa, Australasian waters and New Zealand. They have rounded scales and a distinct band in the center of their clavus.

Masturus lanceolatus (sharp-tailed mola)

Masturus lanceolatus (Sharp-tailed mola) photo: Cindy Manning

Masturus can also reach great sizes. As their common name implies, sharp-tailed mola have a bit more to their tail than Mola mola. Similarly colored to Mola mola, they have smoother skin and produce less mucus. Interestingly, sharp-tailed molas are not consummate sunbathers and carry a smaller parasite load than Mola mola and also have a more tropical distribution.  While this is currently the only accepted species in the cosmopolitan genus, there are more species waiting to be formally described.

Ranzania laevis (slender mola, dwarf mola)

Ranzania laevis (Slender mola, dwarf mola)

Unlike other molas, the slender mola only reaches approx. 100 cm in total length. They are the most colorful and elusive of the ocean sunfishes. They have smoother, thinner skin than any of the other molas and a vertically oriented mouth. 
The Polynesians called these sunfish “King of the Mackerels”. It was seen as bad luck to catch and kill ranzania for such an act would render the mackerel incapable of finding their way to the islands. Like Masturus lanceolatus, this is currently the only accepted species in the cosmopolitan genus Ranzania it is very likely that there are more species waiting to be formally described.