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.
The most common of the three species, the Southern Stingray, can be found along the Atlantic Coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean. The tail of this species carries one or two sharp spines that can deliver a powerful toxic sting. Because it is a bottom feeder, this species is often found buried in the sand along the ocean floor. This makes an unaware snorkeller or diver vulnerable to accidentally stepping on the ray and receiving a sting. The Spotted Eagle Ray also has a long-whip tail, but differs from the Southern Stingray in coloration and in size. Covered in large brown spots, the larger Spotted Eagle Ray has a prominent head and pointed wings, with a disc of 175 cm. The largest of the three species, however, is the Manta Ray, with a wing span 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, as it is known to do, is an amazing sight, and some claim that this is how the animal detaches parasites from its body. If you have yet to experience the remarkable beauty of these "birds"of the deep sea, it is recommended that you make a trip out to Shark Ray Alley. You are sure to be impressed by the sheer number of rays that can be found swimming about in this area; an area once used by fishermen to clean their fish. Today, most guides are known to bring sardines along with them to feed the sharks and rays, which guarantees a good show.
Next week, check out Reef Brief to learn more about the closest relatives of rays- sharks.
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