Rays are cartilaginous fish that belong to the same subclass as sharks. Like sharks, their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone.
Their skin is also covered in miniature, interlocking teeth known as denticles, just as it is in sharks.
Many also have straw-like adaptations, known as spiracles, which enable them to breathe without relying on buccal, or ram, ventilation.
That means that, like benthic shark species, they can continue to breathe even while motionless in the water.
There are many different types of rays, but what are the most common ones you are likely to see when diving or snorkeling?
How Many Types of Rays are There?
There are approximately 630 different species of rays and skates. Although they are very diverse, they all share a flattened body and the ability to “fly” through the ocean by flapping their pectoral fins like a bird flaps its wings.
These similarities make it difficult to distinguish a ray from a skate unless you get close enough to count the number of lobes on their pelvic fins or watch them giving birth.
Rays are generally larger than skates and are just slightly cooler if you ask me.
Without further ado, let’s explore some of the most common species of ray and where you’re likely to find these graceful dancers of the seas.
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What are Common Rays?
There are numerous types of rays, including butterfly, electric, guitar, manta, sawfish, and stingrays. Of those, the most common is probably the Thornback ray.
Although often referred to as a Starry, Thornback, or Maiden ray, the Raja clavata belongs to the skate or Rajidae family, so isn’t a ray at all – it’s a species of cool water skate.
Of the true rays, the most notorious is the short-tail stingray which shot to infamy after the unfortunate death of the Australian conservationist Steve Irwin in 2006.
Other common rays include the Oceanic and Reef Manta rays, the Spotted Eagle ray, and the Southern Stingray.
12 Different Types of Ray
Rather than trying to cover the details of every species of ray under the sun, we’re going to concentrate on some of the more intriguing, as well the most common ray species, and some of the most bizarre.
#1 Oceanic Manta Ray
Image source: Hakaimagazine.com
Having been fortunate enough to dive with these graceful creatures while on holiday in Tofo, Mozambique a few years ago, I can testify to their beauty and elegance.
Also known as Giant Manta rays, their wingspans can reach widths of 29 feet. The largest specimens weigh over two and a half tons, yet they move through the water like “graceful dancers.”
Like some of our other marine giants, namely the whale shark and blue whale, the Oceanic Manta ray feeds exclusively on some of the ocean’s smallest inhabitants – plankton.
Filtering feeding as they swim, Oceanic Manta rays have specialized flaps on their heads that help to direct more water, and therefore food, into their cavernous mouths.
While intimidatingly large, Oceanic Manta rays are gentle creatures that can’t even swallow a fish, let alone a human!
Found in tropical and sub-tropical waters across the globe, the giant Manta takes some eight to 10 years to reach maturity and has a life expectancy of between 50 and 100 years old!
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#2 Reef Manta Ray
Image source: animals-are-cool.fandom.com
Although smaller than its cousin, the Reef Manta ray is still one of the largest rays in the world, typically reaching widths of between 9 and 11.5 ft.
Easily confused with juvenile Oceanic Manta rays, this species is more commonly found close to reefs, islands, and coastal environments, rather than the deeper waters frequented by young Giant Manta rays.
The Reef Manta is also more sedentary than the migratory Oceanic Manta ray. They make regular, often prolonged, visits to their favored cleaning stations where small fish remove parasites and other detritus from their skin.
There are few species large enough or fast enough to prey on the Reef Manta ray, which can reach speeds of 24 kph.
An orca or tiger shark might attempt an attack, but they’re not always successful, often resulting in injury rather than death.
Overfishing is a much greater threat and has caused the population to decrease dramatically, leaving the Reef Manta ray vulnerable to extinction.
#3 Electric Rays
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There are around 60 different species of electric rays, of which the marbled electric ray is probably the most common.
Also known as torpedo fish, they are relatively sluggish creatures that spend much of their time hiding on the seafloor. From its hiding place, it ambushes its prey, stunning it with powerful electric shocks.
Electric rays aren’t usually aggressive to humans but may defend themselves by emitting electrical bursts of up to 200 volts.
While this isn’t enough to kill a human, a shock this strong can cause severe damage.
The Atlantic Torpedo ray is the largest species of electric ray, with females reaching over 3 feet long.
This species actively hunts for its prey, targeting dogfish and small sharks, which it subdues with the electric organs on the side of its head.
#4 Spotted Eagle Ray
Image source: dkfindout.com
The Spotted Eagle ray is one of the most common ray species. It’s also one of the largest, reaching over 16 feet in length.
It uses its thick head and long snout to dig up prey that it locates using electrical and magnetic pulses.
Covered in white spots the distinctive Spotted Eagle ray occupies coral reefs and coastal environments worldwide.
They are often found close to the surface and can leap up to 6 feet out of the water. Experts say their aerial maneuvres are usually performed to avoid predators, remove parasites, or as some form of social interaction.
Their size and velocity do, however, make them potentially dangerous. In 2008, a Michigan woman was killed when a Spotted Eagle ray “flew out of the water and struck her face.” The ray also died on impact.
#5 Devil Rays
Image source: sciencefriday.com
There are nine different species of Devil rays, the largest of which is the Giant Devil ray.
The Giant Devil ray can reach up to 16 feet wide and prefers the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Devil ray pictured here is the smallest of the species.
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Known as the Munk’s Devil ray, it has an average wingspan of just 3 feet and frequently takes to the air, leaping up to 10 feet out of the ocean.
Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, the marine ecologist who first described the species back in 1987, says the Munk’s is the only species of ray that engages in “spectacular” aerial displays while in large groups.
These groups can include tens of thousands of individuals, and it’s thought that their leaps may form some kind of social interaction or courtship.
The Devil ray is similar to other elasmobranchs in this respect. Basking sharks, for example, are thought to use breaching as “a form of reproductive, social interaction.”
#6 Southern Stingray
Image source: marinesanctuary.org
The Southern Stingray is one of the most common whiptail stingray species. Found in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, it has a long, barbed tail, which it uses to protect itself against predators.
An opportunistic feeder, the Southern Stingray will eat almost anything. Its diet usually consists of bony fish and crustaceans.
Although they primarily hunt at night, they will happily graze throughout the day.
The Southern Stingray is so food-driven that they have become tame enough to hand feed in places like the Cayman Islands and Turks & Caicos.
#7 Blue Spotted Ribbontail Stingray
Image source: seaunseen.com
This distinctive species of stingray adopts a similar approach to hunting and foraging as the Spotted Eagle Ray.
Using electroreception to detect its prey, it feeds on small fish and crustaceans that it finds on coral reefs or shallow, sandy-bottomed coastal habitats.
The Blue Spotted Ribbontail is a timid creature and rarely approaches humans.
It will, however, use the venomous spines in its tail to defend itself. These spines cause significant pain, tissue injury, and bleeding if accidentally stepped on.
The Blue Spotted Ribbontail has no teeth, relying on two crushing plates to pulverize its prey.
#8 Butterfly Ray
Image source: naturetingz.com
There are 12 different species of Butterfly rays, the largest of which is the Spiny or Giant Butterfly ray.
With a wingspan of over 6 feet, the Spiny Butterfly ray prefers brackish water close to the coast. There, it disguises itself in the sand and ambushes its prey, which consists of crustaceans, small fish, and mollusks.
Other species of Butterfly ray include:
- Australian butterfly ray
- California butterfly ray
- Japanese butterfly ray
- Longsnout butterfly ray
- Longtail butterfly ray
- Smooth butterfly ray
- Tentacled butterfly ray
- Zonetail butterfly ray
Unlike the Blue Spotted Ribbontail, these rays have up to 200 small shark-like teeth.
While these are mainly used for eating, in some species, the male’s teeth become sharper and more pointed during the breeding season, enabling him to keep a firmer hold on his mate.
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#9 Deepwater Stingray
Image source: fishesofaustralia.net.au
Living at depths of over 2,200 feet, this stingray species hunts on the seafloor and in open water.
Preying on bony fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, it is primarily found off the coasts of Mozambique, South Africa, and Australia.
The only member of the Plesiobatidae family, the Deepwater Stingray is also known as the giant stingaree and can reach sizes of up to 8.9 feet long and almost 5 feet wide, making it one of the world’s largest species of stingray.
#10 Short-tail Stingray
Image source: sharksandrays.com
The Short-tail is a common stingray species found off the coast of South Africa and in coastal habitats near New Zealand and Australia.
Although it’s not usually aggressive, it can inflict a potentially lethal wound with its long, venomous sting.
Conservationist and television personality Steve Irwin died after a fatal brush with a Short-tail stingray in Queensland in 2006.
When threatened, this stingray species curls its tail over its back like a scorpion. Its predators include several shark species, including both the hammerhead and the great white.
#11 Yellow Stingray
Image source: aquariumdoimain.com
Like most stingrays, the Urobatis jamaicensis forages in sandy and muddy areas in shallow inshore waters.
By hiding in the deep sand, the Yellow stingray protects itself against predators and conceals itself from its prey.
This small stingray is around 26 inches long and not considered dangerous, although its venomous tail spines will deliver a nasty injury if stepped on.
Commonly found off the coast of Florida, with its circular shape, the Yellow Stingray is easily identifiable as a type of Round ray.
There are around 30 different species of Round ray, all of which feed either on or close to the seafloor.
Yellow Stingrays use their bodies to lure their prey. By arching its back, the stingray creates a cave-like shelter between its own body and the seafloor.
When an unsuspecting fish seeks shelter there, it swims close to the stingray’s mouth, providing this rather sluggish creature with an easy meal.
#12 Sixgill Stingray
Image source: fishesofaustralia.net.au
The Sixgill stingray has a long, fleshy snout that distinguishes it from many other stingray species. It is also the only stingray to have six separate gill openings rather than five.
Living in deep water of between 1,000 and 3,600 feet, the Sixgill stingray relies on its long snout to both locate and uncover its prey.
Although little is known about the Sixgill stingray, experts suspect they have electroreceptors in their noses, which they use to detect their prey. It then uses that same dexterous snout to excavate its food.
Due to their preference for deep-sea environments, Sixgill stingrays rarely come into contact with humans and are not considered dangerous.
#13 Bat Ray
This graceful specie of eagle ray frequents shallow, inshore waters where it hovers over the sandy sea bed, using its pectoral fins to expose small fish and crustaceans.
They can dig holes nearly eight inches deep as they forage for food.
With between one and three venomous spines in its tail, the bat ray is also a type of stingray.
It differs from most stingrays in that it is euryhaline like the Bull shark and, therefore, able to live in a wide range of salinities.
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I think you’ll agree that rays are fascinating creatures. They’ve survived for millions of years, evolving and adapting to ensure their survival. Here are a few more intriguing facts about these curious creatures.
What’s the Difference Between Manta Ray vs. Sting Ray?
Both stingrays and manta rays have flat bodies and wide pectoral fins. While the manta rays are larger, they’re not as dangerous as stingrays which have venomous barbs in their tails.
How Long Can Stingrays Live?
Another difference between Manta and Stingrays is that Manta rays have a much longer life expectancy.
While stingrays can live for between 15 and 25 years, manta rays have been known to survive for 40 or even 50.
Do Stingrays Jump?
Some stingray species do jump out of the water, as do other species of ray, including the Devil ray.
It’s unclear why stingrays take to the skies, but experts believe it could be to remove parasites, communicate with others, or avoid predation.
What Species of Stingray is the Most Dangerous?
All stingrays have venomous barbs in their tails that can inflict a severe or even fatal injury.
Most injuries occur when a human mistakenly steps on a stingray, and it retaliates using its barbed tail in self-defense.
In some rare instances, like that involving conservationist and TV personality, Steve Irwin, a stingray may respond aggressively, striking out at the perceived threat with its barbed tail.
There are many different species of rays, all of which have adapted to specific environments and diets.
Some camouflage themselves on the seafloor, while others swim at high speed as they actively hunt for their prey.
Electric rays and stingrays are both potentially dangerous, and the electric ray can be quite confrontational, but they’re rarely aggressive.
Nevertheless, a shock from an electric ray could easily knock you off your feet, and a stingray’s barb would leave you with a painful injury.
There have been a couple of unfortunate incidents in which rays have killed humans, but these are extremely rare.
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Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.