The "Birds of the Deep Sea" - Rays
If you've ever ventured to Shark Ray Alley, an open-water area located about five miles south of San Pedro, then you've surely seen the amazing disc-shaped creatures that gracefully swim about. The Southern Stingray Dasyatis americana shares this popular tourist attraction with their close relatives, the Nurse Shark. It's no wonder that so many come to see and swim with the sting rays; their agile movement is as beautiful and effortless as a bird flying through the sky. In addition to the Southern Stingray, the most commonly found species in Belize are the Spotted Eagle Ray Aetobatus narinari and Manta Ray Manta hamiltoni.
Some describe rays as simply "flattened out sharks" because of their similarities to sharks. All rays are characterized by a unique spherical body shape, as well as a raised head with eyes set to the sides. 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 that carries a barbed spine, capable of inflicting a painful wound if stood on or handled. Small gill openings are found on the underside of the disc allowing the ray to breathe. Primarily bottom feeders, rays feed on crabs, plant worms, plankton, and some fish. They are able to feed on these animals because they have evolved a mouth that is located on their underside. Due to their powerful jaws and grinding teeth, most rays also feed on mollusks and crustaceans. Found primarily in the pelagic zone (the ocean far from land), rays can also be found in inshore and shallow areas.
Next week, check out Reef Brief to learn more about the closest relatives of rays- sharks.
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