Animal of the Month
Name: Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (a.k.a. Giant Manta Ray, Oceanic Manta Ray)
Species: M. birostris
Number of Species: At least 3, possibly 6
Wide kite-shaped body, including two large wings; long, thin tail, two forward curved fins before wide mouth with an eye on the outer side of each fin, gills on underside.
Color(s): Black with patches of white on top, white on bottom.
Behavior: Solitary, migratory.
Preferred Habitat: Marine waters.
Range: Can be found in coastal and deep waters worldwide depending on the type of year, as far north as New Jersey, as far south as Peru.
Diet: Plankton and small animals.
Lifespan: 40-50 years.
When you say the word "fish", most people will immediately think of an animal with a tail that moves side-to-side and fins on the top and bottom of the body. You might be surprised to learn that rays are a kind of fish, though they're flat and glide through the water with wings. At up to 29 feet wide, the largest of the rays is none other than the giant oceanic manta ray! Also known as giant manta rays or oceanic manta rays. These magnificent creatures are found across the oceans in both tropical and temperate waters. They have been recorded as far north as New Jersey and the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, and as far south as New Zealand and South Africa
Giant mantas migrate extraordinarily long distances, frequenting different places at different times of the year. They are mostly solitary, sometimes gathering to collect food or to mate. In the tradition of other large sea creatures like baleen whales and whale sharks, giant mantas feed on plankton - small fish, crustaceans and plants. They find their food by endlessly filtering water through their mouths. Giant rays have two strange fins on their faces called cephalic lobes, which help direct food into their mouths. Once inside, the plankton is caught by gill rakers and then funneled down the throat.
Giant mantas reproduce once every two or three years. A mother will go through pregnancy for a little over a year before giving birth to a single four-foot-long pup! Giant mantas appear to live for about 40-50 years. You would think that scientists would know a lot about an animal as large as giant mantas, but due to their nomadic lifestyle, there's still a lot we don't know about their life cycle! Hopefully further research will help us to solve these mysteries.
A little-known fact about giant mantas is that they possess the largest brain-to-body ratio of any cold-blooded fish species. Experiments have been conducted where giant mantas were exposed to mirrors. The mantas reacted in a way that suggested they knew they were looking at their own reflection. In other words, giant mantas appear to be self-aware!
Giant mantas are endangered. Their biggest threats are overfishing, both as direct targets and through bycatch. Much of their fishing is driven by a demand for their gill rakers, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines. As with other endangered animals like tigers and pangolins, there is ZERO scientific evidence that manta ray body parts will improve your health in any way! The constant overfishing combined with the fact that giant mantas reproduce slowly has created a perfect storm; their numbers have dropped alarmingly over the last twenty years, and they're still falling.
Fortunately, much can and is being done to protect giant mantas. Giant manta rays are listed in CITES Appendix II, which severely restricts their trade. Manta fishing is illegal in certain countries, including Peru and Indonesia. In 2009, the Maldives created two marine sanctuaries that protect critical manta habitat! Tourism is also a key component in manta conservation. Many nature-lovers seek out giant mantas while snorkeling or scuba diving, which generates income for oceanside communities. This tourism gives governments an extra incentive to protect giant mantas. It will take a lot of work and cooperation, but there's every hope that manta rays can continue to fly underwater for generations.
To learn more about these gentle giants and how to help them, check out these awesome sites:
Manta Trust-An organization based in the UK that strives to
protect manta species through research, education and cooperation.
Oceana, Giant Manta Ray Page-Oceana has lots of great information
on manta rays, and is running projects to protect their habitat!
Want to do more for giant oceanic manta rays? You can
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