Rays abound in Florida waters


A Spotted Eagle Ray

Special to The Star
Published: Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 10:54 AM.

By Tom Baird


With warm weather and warm water, the bay is getting active. It is impossible to take a casual stroll in the sandy shallows of St. Joseph Bay now without seeing rays – rays quickly swimming away, rays feeding, and rays partially buried in the sand. The rays are prolific and are an integral part of the balance and ecology of the bay.

Rays that are commonly found in the bay are the Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinan), Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), the Bluntnose Stingray (Dasyatis say), the Southern Stingray(Dasyatis americana),and the Atlantic Stingray (Dasyatis sabina). Rays are related to sharks and you often see them lumped together as sharks, skates and rays for ease of understanding their physiology. Like sharks and skates, rays are cartilaginous fishes, lacking true bone in their skeletons. Cartilage is the firm but flexible material at the tip of your nose, your ears, and the pads between your bones at joints.

It is the Atlantic Stingray that most people see gliding over or resting on the bottom in shallow water and it can be easily distinguished from other ray species because the snout is slightly elongated and pointed. It doesn’t attain a large size, only reaching a maximum length of about two feet. The range of the Atlantic stingray is from Chesapeake Bay around Florida and throughout the Gulf of Mexico and southward to the Bay of Campeche in Mexico. The adults are brown or pinkish brown on top and white below, and they are truly lovely to watch when they are slowly swimming, undulating their large pectoral fins.

These rays feed on organisms buried in the substrate such as worms, clams, and various crustaceans such as small crabs. They possess crusher teeth down in the throat called pharyngeal teeth, which they use to crush the shells of clams and other bivalves. These pharyngeal teeth are frequently found in Indian middens in Florida, demonstrating that early peoples caught them for food or for the serrated barb on the tail to use as a tool. Rays can inflict a painful bite if you are foolish enough to pry their mouths open to look at the pharyngeal teeth. (Yes, it has happened to me.)

When rays detect the presence of prey, they will begin digging using powerful thrusts of their snout and flapping their large pectoral fins to push away the sand and mud. With a little patience, it is easy to observe this feeding activity by either standing very still or sitting quietly in a kayak.  When they have taken the prey, they will often leave sizeable pits or depressions in the sand. All those craters in the sandy shallows are left by hunting and feeding stingrays. The rays themselves are not without predators. Bull sharks and Tiger sharks eat stingrays.

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