Slide Stingrays

© Harry Purcell


Rays are fish – weird looking ones, but they are fish. Most rays lack scales and the calcified bones typically found in fish. Instead they have a cartilaginous skeleton – making them more closely related to sharks. Rays differ from sharks in that they are flat, designed to live on the bottom even though some are excellent swimmers. Their gill slits are on the belly side – not on the side of the body like sharks. And, they are not all stingrays. Stingrays have the classic “stinger” (or barb) in the tail they use for defense. Unfortunately, when they are buried in the sand and an unsuspecting person steps on any portion of the ray, they will drive the barb into a foot or ankle. There are eight families and 17 species of rays in the northern Gulf. Three of these families have barbs in their tails.



There are five species of stingrays in the northern Gulf, ranging from one to seven feet in wing-span. The more common is the Southern Stingray. This is a group of rays famous for their penetrating stinging barb. The barb is actually an elongated tooth that once used, can be replaced. Many stingrays have more than one armed and ready to go at one time. The barb is flat and serrated on each side. It possesses a toxin that can produce quite a bit of pain. These barbs are located in a sheath of skin on the tail and are closer to the body of the ray than to the tip of the tail. The ray uses them in defense. Buried in the sand waiting to ambush prey, they could be attacked by a larger predator. They “whip” the tail up and over – similar to the stinging action of a scorpion – and drive the barb home.



Humans can experience this when walking through the sand and stepping on a stingray. The ray swims off and will grow another barb. The victim will experience the shock of being stung and then the pain of the releasing toxin. This is why most locals are more afraid of stingrays than sharks.


This can easily be avoided. Rays do not want to be stepped on any more than you want to step on one. So, drag your feet when walking in the sand – what many call “the stingray shuffle”. The rays will detect your presence as you get closer and swim off. Even if you bump into one, you did not step on it – and it will swim away.



Manta Rays are cool – and big – and they lack barbs. Mantas are sometimes called the devilfish because of the two horns on their head. The horns are known as palps and are used to filter plankton into their jaws – which only have teeth in the lower jaw. These large open water rays also feed on small fish and crustaceans in the water column. They are huge, majestic, slow swimming creatures. Often the tips of their pointed pectoral fins will extend above the surface making them appear as sharks. They can reach a length of 20 feet and a wingspan of 22 feet. They are known to leap from the water and belly-flop on the surface creating a loud “smack” that can be heard for a great distance. They are often accompanied by common ling and remoras. Usually solo, they sometimes form larger schools which are amazing. The young are born alive and at a length of four to five feet!


Manta Ray

Cownose Rays are often confused with mantas because they are seen swimming near the surface as opposed to near the bottom. They are smaller rays having the pointed pectoral fins of the manta which resemble bat wings. They differ in that they only reach three feet in wingspan and body length. Their snout is sort of bulbous and extended, but lacks the palps of the manta. They are often seen swimming in schools in the surf and near seawalls and grassbeds in Santa Rosa Sound. Their teeth are modified for crushing shellfish and they can be seen sometimes near sandy flats pulsating the sand to expose buried clams, shrimp, and crabs. Cownose Rays DO possess a stinging barb, but present little danger to humans as these rays are swimmers.


Their larger cousin, the Eagle Ray is brown with white spots all over its back. These are rare now and have become a listed threatened species.

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Cownose Rays © Harry Purcell

Electric Rays can produce an electric shock from cells in specialized muscles around the head region. All muscles can generate very weak electric fields generating movement, but are so weak that we do not notice them. Enough modification to this design can actually allow the shock to be used for predation and defense. The amount of electricity generated depends on the mood and size of the ray. There is a physical effort involved in producing electricity, so the degree of hunger or fear of a predator, dictates how much is generated. The Atlantic Torpedo Ray can reach six feet in length and a large one can produce up to 220 volts. The Lesser Electric Ray is about 18 inches long and produces about 40 volts. The Atlantic Torpedo Ray prefers colder water in the deeper parts of the Gulf, the Lesser Electric is common near shore and has been found in the surf zone and buried in the sand.


Lesser Electric Ray

Skates superficially resemble stingrays. However, they lack the whip-like tail and the serrated stinging barb. Their tail is more fleshy with visible fins on it. Though they lack the stinging barbs, many have a series of thorns and prickles all over their backs that would be unpleasant to step on. Skates also differ from rays in that they produce young by means of fertilized eggs that are hatched after being laid. The leathery egg case is deposited around reefs and seagrasses. Sometimes weather brings them ashore where they dry out and are called mermaid’s purses.  There are four species, all in the genus Raja, found in the northern Gulf. Two of them, the Clearnose Skate and the Roundel Skate, are pretty common inshore.  Both have a translucent area on either side of snout, but the roundel differs in having two large ocellated spots on its back.


Skate Egg Case aka Mermaid’s Purse

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