Our previous pictorial post about a dive site in the Cayman Islands called Stingray City generated a lot of interest, and quite a few questions about stingrays. We decided to tell our readers some more about these interesting marine animals.
Stingrays are found in warmer waters around the world. Stingrays are Elasmobranchs - a classification of fishes that include sharks and other kinds of rays, like Mantas and Eagle Rays. Elasmobranchs differ from other fishes in that their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone.
There are many species of stingray. The species pictured on this page, and in our photo essay about Stingray City, is the Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana). It can be found in the warmer latitudes of the Western Atlantic, and throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They are found most often in relatively shallow waters where there are sandy bottoms, because that is where they find their food.
The diet of these creatures consists of small animals that live in the sand - mostly shellfish, small crustaceans and worms. The stingray feeds by hovering directly over the sand and fluttering the wing-like edges of its body disc to clear away the top level of sand. This exposes the little creatures that live just under the sand, and the stingray plops on top of them and eats them.
The photos in an earlier post on The Right Blue shows a Southern Stingray hunting for its dinner on a sand flat in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The stingray's mouth and gill slits are on the underside of the body. You can see the mouth and gill slits clearly in the second photo of our post about Stingray City. The stingray's eyes are on the top of its body, as you can see in the photos on this page. When stingrays lie on the sand, they flutter their 'wings' a bit to cover themselves with sand until only their eyes and the end of their tail are visible.
But what about the 'stinger' that gives the stingray its common name?
The 'stinger' actually is a barbed spine that is located at the base of the stingray's tail. The barb contains a venom and is the stingray's defensive weapon. It does not use the barb on prey.
Stingrays spend a lot of time swimming just over the surface of sandy bottoms, looking for food. When they feed, and sometimes when they rest, they settle onto the bottom and lie flat. Thus, whether resting or hunting, they are subject to predation from above. If they are disturbed from above while they are on the sand, they quickly erect the barbed spine at the base of their tail as a defense.
The stingray's tail does not have a 'stinger' at the end of it, and they do not sting divers or prey by whipping their tails around. Most people who have had nasty encounters with stingrays have been divers and waders who accidentally stepped on a ray, or swam closely over one that was half-buried in the sand.
Many people will recall that Steve Irwin, the well-known Australian environmentalist and television personality, met his death after an unfortunate encounter with a stingray in 2006. Ironically, Steve was filming an underwater documentary about the ocean's deadliest creatures at the time of the incident.
Apparently Steve Irwin either laid down on top of a stingray, or swam just a few inches above where one was buried in the sand. The stingray did what stingrays do when some creature threatens them from above: it quickly raised the barbed spine at the base of its tail. Unfortunately, the barb pierced Steve Irwin's chest.
Irwin's death was sobering to divers and especially to underwater photographers. I think it is safe to say that every underwater photographer or videographer in the world has spent a considerable amount of time lying or kneeling on the sand to take pictures. Steve Irwin's death was a dramatic reminder to look carefully at the surface of the sand for evidence of a partially buried stingray before settling there.
So, are stingrays dangerous? In certain circumstances, yes; in most cases, no.
Here are some earlier posts on The Right Blue that feature stories and photos of stingrays:
- Stingray City, Grand Cayman Island - photos of a Southern Stingrays interacting with divers
- Picture this! - photos of a Southern Stingray hunting with a Bar Jack (Caranx ruber)
- The 'eyes' have it - features close-up images of a Blue-spotted Stingray (Taeniura lymma)
- Blue Spotted Stingray at Pulau Sipadan - photo only
- On a collision course with critters in the sea - story and photo of a large deep-dwelling stingray species in Hawaii (at the bottom of the page)