R is for Rays

Rays are sometimes referred to as the birds of the sea. They are amazing disc-shaped creatures that gracefully swim about the ocean. Three rays inhabit Belize: southern stingray, spotted eagle ray, and manta ray. All rays are characterized by a unique spherical body shape with a raised head and eyes set to the sides. Their nostrils, mouth, and gill slits are located on the underside of their body. They are completely composed of cartilage; they have no bones. The most striking feature of rays, however, is what is known as cephalic fins, the wing-like appendages that allow them to "fly." Rays are also equipped with a whip-like tail; tails of southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays carry barbed spines, capable of inflicting a painful wound. The largest of the three species is the manta ray, with a wingspan reaching a width of 20 feet and weighing up to 3,000 pounds. Ironically known as the "Devil Ray", this species has no sting and is completely harmless to humans. Seeing a manta ray leap out of the water is an amazing sight; there are reports of manta rays leaping 15 feet out of the water! The Spanish meaning of "manta" is blanket, describing the unique spherical body shape of this animal. Rays learn to evade predators by spending much of their time on the sandy bottom, flapping their pectoral fins to throw sand on that body.

Rays can be found in the deep ocean, inshore and in shallow areas. Southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays frequently live inside the reef and along the coastline of Belize. Manta rays prefer the deeper, outer ocean, but some do swim near the reef at times.

Southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays are bottom feeders, eating crabs, conch, oysters, crustaceans, plant worms, plankton and some fish. They have powerful jaws and grinding teeth. Plankton is one of the manta rays favorite foods, in addition to small fish and crustaceans. Manta rays suck water through their gills, allowing plankton to remain in their mouths while water is pumped out. Then, via gill arches, the plankton are redirected to the ray's stomach.

Once rays reach sexual maturity, females give birth to 1-2 rays per litter. Each pup hatches inside the female and then is born alive.

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