But what are manta rays - are they mammals or fish? Is there a difference between a stingray and a manta ray? And what is the importance of manta rays for our oceans and the marine ecosystem? How can we help to keep them safe?
There’s so much to discover about these fascinating creatures so today we’re going to share everything we know about them.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT MANTA RAYS
- Manta is the Spanish term for ‘cloak’
- Biologists aren’t 100% sure why, but manta rays are known to leap out of the sea. Watch their acrobatic cousins, the Mobula ray, demonstrate the perfect belly flop!
- Manta rays are as intelligent as they are beautiful with a cognitive function on par with that of dolphins, primates and elephants
- Don’t let their size fool you - manta rays can slice through the water at 22 miles per hour
- Manta rays are solitary creatures but they will form a ‘squadron’ in order to feed
WHAT ARE MANTA RAYS?
So, what are manta rays officially - fish, mammals or something else entirely? In fact, manta rays are fish. Unlike dolphins and whales, they have cold blood and cartilage skeletons rather than bone. Together with sharks, they belong to the Chondrichthyes class.
Manta rays have distinctive large, flat bodies in the shape of a diamond. Their backs are black, dark brown or blue, paired with a white underside (with the exception of this pink manta ray). Sweeping, wing-like pectoral fins permit them to glide through the water as their long tail streams behind them. A pair of cephalic fins protrude from their heads which enable the manta ray to snack whilst on the move.
There are two different species of manta ray; the giant oceanic manta ray and the reef manta ray. As you can guess, the former is absolutely massive; their wingspan can reach 29 feet (8.8 metres). Reef manta rays are slightly smaller and tend to have more spots on their body.
WHERE ARE MANTA RAYS FOUND?
With a preference for warmth, manta rays bask in tropical and subtropical oceans. The vast majority are found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. However, the nomadic giant oceanic manta ray has appeared in cooler oceans. Reef manta rays linger along coastlines and are most prominent in the Indo-Pacific.
The northernmost place a manta has been sighted was near South Carolina, whilst the southernmost record was off the North Island of New Zealand. If you’re travelling and hope to see wild manta rays - ask your hotel where are manta rays found nearby.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A STINGRAY AND A MANTA RAY?
Onsight, manta rays and stingrays look very similar and are easy to mistake for one another. However, whilst there are only two types of manta ray, there are 200 species of stingray!
The most obvious difference between the two is the size - manta rays are significantly larger. But look more closely and you’ll spot other differences. Such as:
- Stingrays have much longer, thinner tails than manta rays with a small stinger at the base of their tail
- A stingray uses its stinger to ward off danger. Instead, manta rays rely on their size and speed to protect themselves against marine predators
- True chameleons, stingrays dwell on the seabed and will camouflage themselves in the sand. By comparison, manta rays thrive off open water but will travel from the surface down to the ocean floor
- Stingrays use their flat teeth to dine on crustaceans. On the other hand, manta rays are filter feeders and use their cephalic lobes to filter plankton
ARE MANTA RAYS DANGEROUS TO HUMANS?
Despite their imposing size manta rays offer zero threat to humans. Their diet is strictly pescatarian - they feed on plankton, fish larva and krill.
It’s actually really common to snorkel and dive with manta rays. They’re just as curious about us and we are them. So if you are lucky enough to find yourself swimming alongside a manta ray, don’t be concerned if they loom rather close. They’re only checking you out!
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF MANTA RAY FOR OUR OCEANS?
Every aquatic creature contributes to the ocean ecosystem, and manta rays are no different. Manta rays swim with their mouths open - filtering plankton as they move, thus controlling the levels of plankton in the ocean and maintaining a balanced nutrient cycle. Scientific studies suggest that as manta rays dive deeply from the surface to the ocean depths this creates an ecological regulation.
Unfortunately, manta rays are classified as vulnerable and in decline according to the IUCN. In the past, they were overfished for their gill plates which are used for medicine and food. Since 2011, NGOs such as WildAid have rallied to protect manta rays. Fishing bans are now in place in a growing number of countries including Peru, Indonesia, Mexico and New Zealand. NGOs are working tirelessly to spread awareness to implement bans in further countries.
Let’s keep manta rays even safer together by keeping their ocean home blue and free from plastic pollution.
Written by the Nature Unite team