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Angelic Apparitions of the Deep: Giant Manta Rays

Flickr/Elias Levy

If there ever was an animal that could conjure up images of winged divine beings, it’d be the manta ray.

Manta rays glide through their ocean dwellings with the elegance of a well-practiced ballerina, holding space like a terrestrial pachyderm, but managing to retain a tender, subtle disposition. At this point, one could easily be thrown-off by the fact I’m referring to an animal that’s in the subclass Elasmobranchs—the same taxonomy as sharks.

The giant manta ray (Manta birostris) can be found in all the world’s tropical oceans. And it’s that nomadic quirk that’s lead to little data about this magnificent creature.

Giant manta rays posses the largest brain of any fish known to science. And what’s equally “giant” is obvious—their sheer size. Attaining disc lengths—“disc” referring to horizontal length—of up to 21 feet and tipping the standard scales at over two tons, they’re the largest ray species, and dwarfing many of their phylogenic cousins.

But there’s much more to the charismatic creatures than their physiology. Behaviorally, they’re something to behold. Don’t mistake that as predatory—giant manta rays feed exclusively on plankton via the funneling action done by expanding their cephalic lobes.

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Two’s Better Than One

Documented morphological observations and genetic sequencing have given rise to two scientifically-backed species, the “resident” reef manta ray (Manta alfredi) and the newly branched species, the “giant” oceanic manta ray (Manta birostoris). This recognition of two different species will aid in future studies and, ultimately, in the preservation of these aquatic angels.

Manta Ray Body Image
Flickr/Steve Dunleavy

Big Fish, Big Problems

You know what they say, “size isn’t everything.” These ocean giants are so understudied that there’s little in the way of adequate protection for these creatures. And while yes, they’ve been designated by a few nation states as a protected species, their biggest safety net lies in the hands of ecotourism. Dives where the participants interact with the giants is a booming industry-niche, and this simultaneously acts as an outreach platform, enriching the divers with a sense of compassion and empathy for the regal rays, “resident” or “giant” manta.

Arkive said the following about the ecological importance of these fish:

As large and charismatic species, manta rays may serve as a useful ‘flagship’ species for conservation, helping to promote the protection of the wider marine environment.

Let’s not allow that flag to rest at half-mast.

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Angelic Apparitions of the Deep: Giant Manta Rays