Different Types of Marine Rays

How to Identify Rays on a Scuba Dive

Scuba diving in the maldives with a stingray.

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A wide variety of rays inhabit the oceans and even some bodies of fresh water. Rays are fish, and they are similar to sharks in that their bodies are supported with cartilage instead of bone. All rays have a flattened shape, with large, rounded pectoral fins fused to their bodies and heads.

Most rays swim using their pectoral fins, either by waving them in an elegant, wave-like motion or by flapping them like a bird. Rays are either bottom feeders or filter feeders, rooting for crustaceans and mollusks buried in the sand or using a sieve-like filter to strain plankton from the water.

You can identify rays by their shape and behavior. While all rays have flattened bodies, they vary by body shape (round, diamond, or triangular), their method of swimming, the thickness of their tails, and the presence of stings or barbs. Rays are not aggressive toward divers, but you should never touch a ray. At best, you will frighten it away, but you could receive a nasty sting or painful electric shock, or worse.

Stingrays

Sting Ray

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Stingrays are probably the most recognized type of ray. They are easily identified by their elongated, thin tails with barbed stings. Most stingrays' tails have venom glands, which inject an incredibly painful toxin when the sting is used. Thankfully, stingrays only sting out of self-defense. A diver is unlikely to be stung by a stingray unless the stingray feels threatened.

You can also identify stingrays by their characteristic diamond shape and by their location—they are frequently found half-buried in the sand rooting for food. Many rays spend the majority of their time on the sea floor; however, some stingrays, such as spotted eagle rays, are more commonly observed free-swimming.

Stingrays are ovoviviparous, meaning that their eggs develop and hatch inside the mother, who then gives birth to live young.

These rays can be found in all parts of the world, even in fresh water. Commonly recognized species of stingrays include the southern stingray, the spotted eagle ray, and the blue spotted ray.

Manta Rays

Manta Ray

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Although they do not have stingers, manta rays are technically a type of stingray; they simply lost their stings through the process of evolution. You can easily identify manta rays by their great size. The largest manta rays have wingspans up to 25 feet and weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.​

Despite their great size, manta rays are not vicious predators. They usually filter-feed and have largely padded lobes on either side of their heads to direct food into their mouths.

Manta rays are incredibly graceful underwater and can move quite quickly with seemingly effortless movements of their pectoral fins. Manta rays even breech occasionally, leaping from the water and backflipping in the air.

Skates

Skate are a type or ray.

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Skates appear quite similar to stingrays, but there are a few differences between skates and stingrays that divers can use to identify a skate underwater.

Skates do not have stings. Instead, they have sharp barbs along their spines or on their tails for defense. Skates also have wider tails than stingrays, with small fins near the tip of the tail. Finally, skates are round or triangular-shaped with elongated noses, in contrast to the typical diamond shape of most stingrays.

Skates have a different reproductive cycle from stingrays. Stingrays are ovoviviparous, while skates are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs that hatch outside of the female's body. Skates are only found in marine habitats.

Electric Rays

Electric Ray

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Electric rays have a different form of defense from other rays. Stingrays sting, skates defend themselves with barbs, and manta rays are too large to have many natural predators. Electric rays are smaller than many other types of rays and do not have barbs or stings. Instead, they stun their prey with electric shocks.

While all rays have a highly developed electric sense, electric rays have special electric organs on either side of their heads. These organs can generate between 50 and 200 volts and 30 amperes of electricity, enough to shock or injure a human, and definitely enough to take out small prey. Electric rays have such an acute electric sense that they are thought to be the most electrically sensitive of all animals.

Electric rays are usually 1 to 6 feet in diameter and have a more rounded shape than other rays. They have rounded dorsal fins and thick tails. Unlike other rays, electric rays use their tails to swim, not their pectoral fins. Electric rays are found at many depths, from shallow waters to as far as 3,000 feet below the surface.