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Scientists study rare hoodwinker sunfish found near UC Santa Barbara

The rare hoodwinker sunfish hadn’t been seen in Northern Hemisphere waters in about 130 years. Then last month, one washed up on Sands Beach near UC Santa Barbara.

Now, university scientists who study parasites are getting an inside look at the rare sea creature.

“We were able to seize the opportunity,” said Armaud Kuris, a zoology professor at UCSB. “Go on out and get the guts. That’s sort of what we do, as parasitologists.”

Examining the inside of the fish, scientists discovered about 20 feet of intestines, which were filled with an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 parasites, including multiple species of tapeworm.

Those parasites likely came from jellyfish, the sunfish’s primary food source. But the parasites are not known to multiply in the intestines, meaning the fish probably ate several thousand or even millions of jellyfish.

“Jellyfish are a low-quality food,” Kuris said. “They’re 98 percent water… I’m guessing that eating jellyfish is just slightly more nutritious than chewing on wood.”

Dana Morton is a PHD student taking extra time outside of working on her dissertation to study the hoodwinker, but she says it’s well worth it.

“As a parasitologist it’s kind of one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances to do some really interesting natural history and do something outside of my normal system,” she said. “For something like this, you make time.”

These scientists are still trying to find out how old the fish was. They say it’s unlikely the parasites killed the fish.

The cause of death and why it washed up in Santa Barbara, thousands of miles from its native waters, remain a mystery.

“No idea as to why it died and where they really are in the ocean,” Kuris said. “Sometimes you just have to accept that new knowledge is needed.”

Kuris added that he’s excited about the unknown and learning more about this rare species. Scientists from around the world have taken notice as well, asking for UCSB to send samples from the fish for studying.

Scientists say the fish was about seven feet tall and about 2,000 pounds.

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