From Stingrays to Skates: Exploring Different Ray Species

Photo Credit: Ellis Amos

One of the most unusual creatures found in the world’s waters, rays make for some highly fascinating marine life. Dating back 150 million years to the Jurassic Period, they’ve certainly learned a thing or two in that time – evolving and developing into the unique animals they are today.

Looking to learn more about the ray species? With the help of one of our expert trainers, we’ll tell you more about this intriguing species, as well as what to expect from the rays we keep at Bristol Aquarium!

How many species of rays are there in the wild? And is it true that they’re closely related to sharks?

There are over 600 species of skates and rays worldwide.

Yes! Rays, skates and sharks are closely related. They are all members of the Elasmobranch family. They all have a similar anatomy – in fact, rays are pretty much flat sharks. They both have a skeleton made up of cartilage (the squishy thing that’s in our nose and ears), and have the same type of skin (scales that are different to that of other fish), jaws and teeth.

Rays and skates are pretty much the same thing – just different names that have been given by fishermen. Skates have a stockier tail whereas rays’ tails tend to be slimmer.

Where in the world are most species of rays found? And are any found in UK waters?

Rays are widespread and can be found all over the world except in Antarctica, but the greatest number of different species are found in warmer tropical areas.

There are around 18 species that can be found regularly in UK waters, including thornback rays and common stingrays! You can even find evidence of them along the beach in the UK. Ray egg cases – also known as mermaid’s purses – can be found washed up on beaches around the country. You can actually join the egg case hunt, carried out by the Shark Trust, to help them identify and record shark and ray eggs washed up on our coastline.

Could you tell us about the typical habitat of a ray? Do they tend to dwell in the shallows or are they a deep-sea species?

Rays can be found in both saltwater and freshwater, shallow and deeper areas, as well as coastal and open water – they are very versatile! They can typically be found on the seafloor hiding in sand.

Do all species of rays have a barbed tail? And what is this used for in the wild?

No, not all rays have a barbed tail – there are many types of rays and only some have a barb and sting at the end of their tails, which is why stingrays are named as such.

These barbed tails are used in the wild for defence, warding off any potential predators. Their barbs are serrated along the edges, like a knife, and when used they will pull off and lodge in the predator, scaring them away.

The rays without a stinger instead have a thicker and often spiky tail that they can use, like a spiky club, to defend themselves. It’s easy to tell when a ray feels threatened because they will hold their tails above their heads as a warning.

What do rays typically eat and do they have any natural predators?

Rays aren’t the fussiest eaters and usually eat a variety of things. In the wild, they eat molluscs, fish, squid and crustaceans, including shrimp, crabs and lobsters. We feed them similar things here at the aquarium.

Younger, juvenile rays can be a meal for a wide range of predators, but fully-grown adults will only have a few predators, such as large seals, sharks and whales, such as orcas.

Photo Credit: Ellis Amos

What can you tell us about their unique bodies and the way they move through the water?

Most rays swim by either oscillating or undulating their bodies, which means they move a bit like a wave does. Others flap their sides like wings to move through water. Their tails can also be used to help them manoeuvre through water.

The fastest, manta rays, are capable of reaching up to 22 mph for short bursts, and are capable of jumping out of the water.

How long do rays typically live for?

It depends on the species, but generally 15-25 years.

Could you tell us about how rays reproduce? How long is their gestation period? And do young rays typically stay with their parents?

Some species reproduce by laying eggs. These often look a bit like seaweed, with hooks and ‘strings’ at the ends to help the eggs get tangled into actual seaweed, keeping them safe from predators. The eggs contain an egg sac which provides food for the developing young, which can take anywhere from 5 months to over a year to fully develop, depending on the species and temperature of the water.

Some species give birth to live young in one of two ways. The females can retain the eggs until they’ve hatched inside the uterus; when the egg yolk has been used up, the pups are then born ready to go. The second way is where the egg yolk develops into the placenta attached to the wall of the uterus and are then born alive, like in mammals. Skates reproduce by laying eggs whereas rays give birth to live young.

No species of ray or skate have any parental care after the birth/egg-laying, the young are left to fend for themselves.

What is your favourite part about working with rays?

Our rays are trained to come over to a station to be fed by the keepers. We throw in food for the mullet and other fish in our bay of rays tank, which gets the rays excited, and they swim over to the front of the tank by the glass. We can then use grabbers to feed each ray individually – this helps us to know who is feeding, how much they are eating, and gives us a good opportunity to check their overall health.

The hardest part is definitely telling them apart, as many of them look the same and there are a few of each species in the tank. We have to use unique markings on their bodies to help work out who is who.

There is one ray in particular – our stingray Ravioli (named because baby rays look like tiny pieces of stuffed pasta) – who is very playful and gets very excited at feeding time. But don’t be fooled if you see him; not only has he been fed, but has most likely had more than his fair share from stealing the food of others!

What can visitors expect from their experience of rays at Bristol Aquarium?

We have rays in two exhibits in the aquarium: saltwater rays in our Bay of Rays exhibit, and freshwater rays in our Amazon area. You can find the Bay of Rays in our Urban Jungle exhibit, housed within the warm, tropical environment of the giant botanical house. The display is open-topped and home to several special types of ray, including common stingray, thornback rays and painted rays. You’ll also see some wrasse and thick-lipped grey mullet.

Photo Credit: Ellis Amos

In our Amazon Display, we have three freshwater rays who are fed daily; you can see them swimming about or resting on the bottom of the tank. Our rays are naturally inquisitive creatures, and will likely have as much fun observing you as you do observing them.

For more information about Bristol Aquarium, or to book discounted tickets online, visit our homepage today or get in touch with our friendly and helpful team on 0117 929 8929.