Types of Rays: A Quick Guide
Aug 9, 2019 | 6 minute read
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Rays are some of the most beautiful and unique sea creatures on the planet. These fascinating fish come in various shapes and sizes, and are spread across the globe. They’ve been around since the Jurassic period, too – that’s over 150 million years! Being around for so long has allowed Rays to develop some remarkable features and abilities. To pay tribute to these incredible animals, we’ve created this guide to the most common types of Rays.

a blue spotted ray

There are as many as 600 species of Rays in the world. Depending on their body shape and behavior, each of these fish belongs to one of the 24 Ray families. All Rays are flat, with large pectoral fins fused to their heads. The fins, eyes, and tail are all on their dorsal (upper) side, with the mouth and gill slits on the ventral (lower) side. 

Rays make up a large group of cartilaginous fish, which are related to Sharks. Although they look nothing like their fearsome cousins, Rays and Sharks have a few things in common. The most significant similarity is that Rays, like Sharks, don’t have bones in their bodies. Their skeletons are actually made out of cartilage, and like Sharks, this allows them to move more efficiently.

They’re Not All Looks

Before we get to the types of Rays, let’s take a look at several features that make them stand out in the fish world.

  • Despite being cartilaginous, Rays have incredibly strong jaws. They can crush hard-shelled prey with a single bite!
  • Almost all Rays have flat stomachs, which allows them to dig into the sandy ocean bottom and hide from would-be predators. If they are discovered, however, Rays won’t hesitate to use their venomous tails to sting their attacker. 
  • Rays can live anywhere from 15 to 25 years. 
  • Size-wise, these fish can grow anywhere from 4 inches to over 20 feet. The largest Ray ever recorded weighed a staggering 6,000 pounds!
  • Depending on the species, Rays can live in oceans as well as in freshwater. Some species have evolved to be able to survive in both environments.
  • Rays don’t use their eyes to find prey. Instead, they use electro-sensors called Ampullae of Lorenzini, which is another similarity to Sharks.
  • Unlike many other fish, baby Rays are born fully formed. These pups are just smaller copies of their parents, and are capable swimmers from the get-go.
  • Some Rays swim by flapping their wings in a bird-like motion. Others contort their entire bodies to glide through the water.
  • Rays’ main predators are Sharks, seals, and sea lions.
  • After the tragic death of adventurer Steve Irwin, Rays have gotten a bad reputation. These creatures are actually very friendly and even playful. They only attack when they feel threatened.

Now that we’ve established how cool these fish are, let’s dive into the specific types of Rays. 

Types of Rays

Stingrays

Stingrays are what people usually think about when they say “Ray.” Known for their thin, elongated tails, Stingrays are the largest members of the Ray family. Stingrays’ tails are equipped with barbed spines which are capable of producing incredibly venomous stings. A Stingray won’t attack you on its own, but you should pay attention not to step on one.

Common types of Stingrays include the Eagle Ray, Blue Spotted Ray, and the Southern Stingray. While technically lacking the sting, Manta Rays are also part of the Stingray family. These are the largest Rays, often topping 2,000 pounds! 

Spotted Eagle Ray

One of the most common Stingrays is the Spotted Eagle. This beautiful creature inhabits tropical waters in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. Dark blue or black with countless white spots, this animal is instantly recognizable. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but the Spotted Eagle will sometimes even reward you with a backflip as it jumps out of the water!

Sawfish

Sawfish are, without question, one of the coolest looking fish in the ocean. They may look a lot like Sawsharks, but these creatures actually belong to the Ray family. Like Sawsharks, they boast an elongated snout lined with sharp teeth, resembling a saw. For the longest time, people thought that the snout was used to dig up food from under the sandy seafloor. Its actual use is much more impressive than that.

a sawfish

First, the saw is equipped with thousands of electroreceptors, allowing the Sawfish to scan the area in all three dimensions. Second, it uses it as an actual saw. Australian researchers have found that Sawfish use sudden lateral movements to attack prey – sometimes cutting other fish in half!

There are five species of Sawfish in the world: Narrow, Dwarf, Smalltooth, Largetooth, and Green Sawfish and all are endangered species. Apart from Narrow Sawfish, which inhabits the Atlantic ocean, all other species of Sawfish live in the Indo-Pacific.

Guitarfish 

Everybody knows Rays and Sharks look totally different. But there’s one group of fish that actually hints that these two come from the same family. These are the Guitarfish. With the flat upper body of a Ray, and the finned lower body of a Shark, Guitarfish are instantly recognizable as a mix between the two groups.

a guitarfish
Ray or Shark?

Guitarfish have relatively small wings and a flat head. The wings are not as fused to the head as those on some other Rays. The dorsal fins and tail are Shark-like, and help propel the fish forward. These guys swim in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, and can tolerate both saltwater and freshwater.

Electric Rays 

Electric Rays got their name for their ability to generate and discharge electric current. Depending on the species, these fish can discharge currents anywhere between 8 and 220 volts! 

Electric Rays boast a round pectoral disc, and two round dorsal fins. They are found in waters around the world, and have been around since ancient times. As a matter of fact, Ancient Greeks used this fish to numb the pain during childbirth and other operations.

One of the largest Electric Rays is the Atlantic Torpedo, often reaching 6 feet and 200 pounds. Did you know that the torpedo missile actually got its name after this fish? 

Skates

At first glance, Skates look a lot like Stingrays. There are a few differences between them, however. First, Skates’ tails don’t have stings. Instead, Skates have barbs along their spines or on their tails for defense. Second, Skates have much wider and firmer tails. The snout on a Skate is also firm in comparison to that of a Stingray. 

a skate fish

Another difference between the two types of Rays is that Skates live in much deeper waters than Stingrays. If you’re a diver, you’re much more likely to encounter a coastal Stingray than a deep-dwelling Skate. Skates sometimes live in depths over 9,000 feet.

Skates are among a few types of Rays that lay eggs. They do this by laying a unique looking egg case, called a Mermaid’s Purse. There’s just a handful of fish species that reproduce this way, and each has its own unique looking purse.

Like Electric Rays, Skates can produce an electric current. However, the electric output of a Skate is nowhere near as strong as that of an Electric Ray. For this reason, scientists believe that it is used as a form of communication.

And So Many More

There are countless more types of Rays, each with their own quirks and abilities. We hope that you’ll get lucky enough to see one in the flesh – it won’t be a sight you’ll forget any time soon. And if you do see one, you’ll now be able to say “I know this fish”! Just be careful not to step on one.

Some Rays are part-time photo models.

Have you ever encountered a Ray before? What’s your favorite Ray? Let us know in the comments below.

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