“Did you see that marble ray?” “You mean the stingray?” There are quite a few ray species and some of them look quite similar, so it’s easy to be unsure of what you’re looking at. Names can also vary from one area to another. Here we’ll look at some of the most famous species and help you learn how to recognize them.
Not to be confused with their cousins the mobula rays (see below), manta rays are divided into two species: the reef manta and the oceanic manta. Divers can see them around the world in temperate and tropical waters. Their most distinctive feature is their gaping mouth and the cephalic fins that they use to push water into it to filter the plankton they eat. They are harmless and can grow up to 23 feet (7 m) from wingtip to wingtip. Although they have few natural predators, the IUCN Red List classifies them as threatened due mostly to human activities such as slaughter to collect gill rakers.
Often called “devil rays” because they seem to have horns when their cephalic fins are folded, there are today nine known species of mobulas, including the Chilean and Japanese mobulas. Only the latter has a stinger at the end of its tail. Although they look a bit like manta rays, they are typically smaller, reaching lengths of 17 feet (5.2 m).
They are well-known for breaching, which they sometimes do in schools. They also frequently swim together gracefully in large aggregations. The IUCN Red List classifies them as Endangered.
Spotted eagle ray
The spotted eagle ray is smaller than its cousin the mobula. Divers can usually identify these brown rays quite easily thanks to their dorsal pattern of white spots. These rays have venomous stingers and the largest have up to a 10-foot (3 m) wingspan. They are also sometimes called white-spotted eagle rays, bonnet skate/rays and duckbill rays. Do not confuse with the blue-spotted ray, a smaller, round ray with blue spots instead of white. The IUCN lists them as Near Threatened and they inhabit most tropical waters around the world.
Round ribbontail ray
This member of the stingray family has so many names that divers often get confused even if they’re describing the same animal. Also known as a marbled ray, black-spotted stingray or giant reef ray, this round ray can reach lengths of up to 10 feet (3 m). They have a distinctive white-and-dark mottled pattern, and they’re quite common in tropical Indo-Pacific waters. Unfortunately, overfishing and habitat destruction have led the IUCN to classify them as Vulnerable.
Southern stingrays are quite common in the Atlantic Ocean and divers will most often see them in the Caribbean. This stingray has a diamond-shaped body and a brown/gray dorsal color with a white belly. Their color and shape are perfectly suited to hiding on the sea floor. The biggest southern stingrays can reach up to 5 feet (1.5 m) but they are usually smaller. The IUCN lists them as Data Deficient, which means there isn’t enough information to classify them properly.