There are few sights more majestic than an eagle ray gliding through the water. You can find these spectacular creatures throughout the globe, however, the spotted eagle ray's penchant for tropical shallow coastal waters makes it extremely popular with divers.
Eagle rays are relatively easy to identify because of their wing-like pectoral fins, which are used to propel them through the water. Species like the spotted eagle ray can have a wingspan of just under three metres, whereas others can have a wingspan of less than one metre. Aside from their breathtaking 'wings,' eagle rays also have long whip-like tails which can span up to three times the length of their body.
But beauty is only skin deep; there's much more to eagle rays than meets the eye. If you're interested in learning more about these mysterious creatures, discover our top ten eagle ray facts.
1. There Are More Than One Species of Eagle Ray
When the term 'eagle ray' is mentioned, many will immediately picture the iconic spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), easily distinguishable by its dark blue back and contrasting white markings. Nevertheless, the realm of eagle rays, a subset of rays within the Myliobatidae family, encompasses approximately 20 distinct species. Among them are the familiar common eagle ray (Myliobatis aquila), the Australian eagle ray (Mylio australis), and the captivating banded eagle ray (Aetomylaeus maculatus).
Ironically, the spotted eagle ray is more widely distributed than the common eagle ray. It's found in Africa, Asia, Oceania, North America and South America, versus the common eagle ray's African, Asian and European distribution.
2. Eagle Rays Can Jump Out of the Water
One intriguing eagle ray fact is their penchant for occasionally leaping out of the water, made all the more captivating by the fact that scientists haven't determined the reason behind this unusual behaviour.
Theories range from removing parasites to communicating to females trying to escape unwelcome males. By far our favourite theory is that they're performing these overwater acrobatics purely for fun. Similarly to how dolphins surf waves, there's some speculation that leaping eagle rays are simply having a grand old time.
3. They've Graced Hollywood
There's an eagle ray featured in the movie Finding Nemo. The film, which is set in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, has a spotted eagle ray character called Mr Ray. Mr Ray is Nemo's fun teacher, guiding the young clownfish and his aquatic classmates on a field trip to the edge of the reef.
4. Eagle Rays Are Found in Most Oceans
Despite there being only 20 or so species of eagle rays, this family spans far and wide. Eagle rays can be found in most oceans and seas, from Africa and Asia to Oceania and Europe, and even stretching across North and South America. These globe-trotters have also been seen in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Some, like the spotted and common eagle rays, have established their prescence across multiple continents, while others, such as Australian, Japanese (Myliobatis tobijei) and Chilean (Myliobatis chilensis) eagle rays have a narrower distribution.
5. Some Eagle Rays Have Their Own Unique ‘Fingerprint’
Spotted eagle rays can be differentiated from one another thanks to the white spots on their back. A study conducted in 2016, led by Maria del Socorro González-Ramos in Mexico, found that a spotted eagle ray's unique pattern compared to a fingerprint, enabling individual identification.
Using photo identification software, Socorro González-Ramos and her team found that this method was accurate 88.2 percent of the time. This method can also be used to identify individual ornate eagle rays (Aetomylaeus vespertilio), a rare species with decorative spots and stripes.
6. Eagle Rays Are Bottom Feeders
As bottom feeders, eagle rays hunt for prey on the seafloor. Like stingrays, their mouths are on the underside of their bodies. However, they also have a protruding snout which they sometimes use to dig through the sand to look for a tasty meal.
Eagle rays are carnivores with specialized flat teeth designed for grinding and crushing crustaceans and molluscs. However, they aren't fussy eaters and will also chow down on worms, small fish and even octopuses.
7. Eagle Rays Pack a Venomous Punch
While eagle rays aren't known for being aggressive, they can certainly inflict some damage when they feel threatened. Some species of eagle ray have venomous barbed spines at the base of their long tails which can cause a painful sting.
The good news is as long as you give eagle rays space and don't try to touch or grab them, it's highly unlikely that they will sting you. They are shy and timid creatures by nature and will probably just swim away if they feel you're getting too close.
8. Eagle Rays Have Few Predators
Despite their cute appearance, eagle rays are no pushovers. Equipped with long stingers, they have the means to defend themselves effectively, with only the ocean's top predators willing to risk the hunt. While eagle rays have few threats, they can find themselves prey to several shark species, including tiger sharks, silvertip sharks and hammerhead sharks.
9. Some Eagle Rays Can Form Huge Schools
While eagle rays tend to be solitary, occasionally they will form large schools amassing several hundred individuals. These spectacular displays, thought to be for mating, occur around the globe such as Cozumel in Mexico and the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
10. Eagle Rays Have a Unique Courtship Ritual
Our final eagle ray fact is centred around the spotted eagle rays' bizarre mating ritual. They typically breed in the summer with a gestation period of around one year. So far, everything seems normal.
But, here's where it gets weird. During the mating season, females can be chased by multiple males. Known as mate guarding, the males will chase, joust and even fight each other as they vie for access to the female. The dominant male will then attach itself to the female by 'biting' onto her body, before flipping her over and mating with her for between 30 - 90 seconds.