Stingrays, Eagle Rays, Manta Rays: An Uplifting Tale

Rays are the other star-power cartilaginous fishes, outnumbering sharks in species and matching them in variety of lifestyles. Stingrays lurk on the seafloor, Eagle Rays soar above the reef, Manta Rays cruise the oceans. Did I mention Star Power? 
A squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays cruises through a mangrove lagoon in the Galapagos.

WITH FLATTENED BODIES, RAYS HAVE TAKEN THE PECTORAL FIN/HYDRODYNAMIC LIFT CONCEPT so far as to develop their pectoral fins into broad “wings.” Eagle and manta rays’ wings let them soar through the open waters like…well, eagles…flapping and gliding. Stingrays have the same lift capabilities but spend much of their time close to or on the seafloor. They don’t swim high or far.

Rays are notable as the other cartilaginous fishes, along with sharks – that is, their skeletons are made of cartilage, lighter and more flexible than the calcium-based material of bony fishes (Hagfish and Lampreys are also cartilaginous; they’re not in my ouvre). Rays diverged from sharks some 300 million years ago.

Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana), Bahamas


On coral reefs in the Caribbean, the species you’re most likely to encounter are Southern Stingrays (Dasyatis americana), Yellow Stingrays (Urobatis jamaicensis), Spotted Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari) and, in the right places and with luck, Ocean Mantas (Manta birostris) and Reef Mantas (Manta alfredi). As usual, the Indo/Pacific basin counts a somewhat larger and more diverse population of Stingrays and Eagle Rays.

Ocean Manta (Manta birostris), Flower Gardens

Each has their own approach to earning their livings. Eagle Rays and Stingrays scour the sandy bottoms to uncover the buried crustaceans, mollusks, worms, small fishes and other morsels that make up the bulk of their diets. Finding them, they use their powerful jaws to crush and grind up shells.


Stingray “wings” have developed to such an extent that they dominate the rays’ bodies, creating a fish somewhat diamond-shaped, slightly wedge-shaped at the head. Their mouths and gills are on their undersides. They use their senses of smell, vision, hearing and electroreception to detect the presence of prey. Settled on the bottom, they flap their wings – their broad pectoral fins – to stir up the sand and uncover food (They also have lots of fishy friend who follow them around hoping for easy meals from the rays’ leavings).

Click on this screen shot for a video about Southern Stingrays, Spotted Eagle Ray and other bottom feeders.

With Stingrays, their width across their broad pectoral fins tends to be as notable as their length. The reach of Southern Stingrays may be as much as seven feet, typically four or five feet. Typically, they may be 4 or 5 feet long, with their tails as much as two times the length of the body. Yellow Stingrays are much smaller, typically about a foot in length, not counting the tail, and 14 inches in disc width.

Famously, Stringrays’ long, whip-like tails feature a slightly venomous stinger, largely a defensive weapon. Humans are likely to experience stings by accident, say by stepping on a ray. The injury can be painful but not usually life-thratening. “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s death in 2006 was caused by an animal’s stinger penetrating heart, not by venom.

Stingrays often hide in the sand, covering themselves as a defense from potential predators. But sandy concealment also sets them to ambush a passing prey like small fishes. In such cases, they’re notable for a technique called “tenting.” As a prey approaches, the devious ray presses its broad fins against the bottom and raises its head, creating a suction that pull the unfortunate victim underneath its body.

With its eyes and spiracles all located on its upper side, our predator ray can’t see its victims after capture. But like sharks, they utilize smell and “ampullae of Lorenzini” to detect their prey’s electrical activity.

While swimming or in the open rays breath by drawing water past their gills through their mouths. Settled on the bottom and especially covered by sand, they can draw it in through their spiracles.


Spotted Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari) found in oceans worldwide, swim constantly, stopping only to scrounge for crustaceans, mollusks and other edibles in the sediments. At left, a ray cruises among the mangroves of the Galapagos. Above, at Bonaire, a hungry ray probes the sandy bottom at a depth of about 100 feet for tasty morsels.










Eagle Rays’ mouths and gills are also on their lower surfaces, but they have more of a snout design suitable for digging in the sediments. Swimming nearly constantly above the seabottom, they use those same senses of smell, vision, hearing and electroreception to detect prey. They dig into the sand with their shovel-shaped snouts, unearth morsels copepods, crabs and little mollusks and crush them with hardened jaws.


To read the post and see a video of my 30-minute dance with a Manta Ray at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, click on this screen shot.

Manta Rays are open ocean plankton feeders. Like Whale Sharks, they charge through the waters, mouths wide open, sweeping in crustaceans, small fishes anything in their way that may serve as food. Like Whale Sharks, they cruise almost constantly.

Eagle Rays typically scale in at 4 to 6 feet across; Manta Rays at 20 feet, not counting the tails in either case.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Reef Fish Identification, Tropical Pacific, Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Marine Life, Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, Marty Snyderman & Clay Wiseman; Reef Fish Behavior, Ned DeLoach; Peterson’s Field Guide to Atlantic Coast Fishes, C. Richard Robins, G. Carlton Ray, John Douglass; Discover FishesFlorida Museum of Natural HistoryMarine Species Identification Portal; Assorted Fish Species Topics, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica.

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