Manta rays are generally docile creatures. They are striking in both their sheer size and spectacular beauty – they have a large head and widespread mouth, flanked by two protruding lobes. Adults have an average “wing span” of 13 feet, but have been known to grow to over 20 feet in width. Their long, stingless spine might appear threatening, but is generally harmless to humans. Mantas have been observed jumping out of the water and somersaulting beneath the surface.
Until recently it was commonly believed that only one species of manta rays (Manta birostris) existed in the world. But new research has revealed that there are at least two species of mantas. And while the two known manta ray species have plenty of similarities, the variations of the lips, wings, shoulders, colors, skin texture and reproductive biology are important. But why?
I connected with Alistar Dove, Senior Scientist at the Georgia Aquarium, to learn more. In the United States, the Georgia Aquarium is the only facility to have manta rays on public display. According to Al, this new discovery of another manta species matters a great deal.
“Taxonomy underlies everything else in biology,” Al shared. “What good is a population estimate, for example, if that estimate confuses two species? We would grossly overestimate both, potentially leading to overexploitation. More generally, how can we understand migration patterns, breeding grounds, diets, ecological roles or behavior, if we are constantly confounded? These are, of course, somewhat self-centered concerns about the quality of our science or management decisions; a species count is about the most fundamental measure of nature that we have, and those sorts of diversity stats are predicated on a decent taxonomy. Consider this: how much of a ginormous “oops!” would it be if we were to protect a species in one area of ocean, only to learn that the animal in the area we didn’t protect was actually a different species? Perhaps a more important reason it matters is for the mantas themselves and the rest of their ecosystem… Each species has an intrinsic right to exist and a value to the ecosystem it’s part of.”
The Save our Seas Foundation produced this excellent video (below) when photographing manta rays for a recent National Geographic Magazine article. Check it out to see these graceful creatures on a filter-feeding frenzy.
Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall