Types of Rays: A Quick Guide
Aug 9, 2019 | 6 minute read Comments
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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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Comments (10)
  • Ali Taylor

    Dec 6, 2019

    Thanks for the information about rays. I have been a huge fan of the manta since I was a small child and saw one in a black and white Jacques Cousteau movie. At the time I was fascinated but also frightened, since it seemed so strange to see this huge creature flying underwater. How delighted I was to find out that it was not dangerous and could relate to humans! I hope to see one up close some day.

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      Sean

      Dec 9, 2019

      Hi Ali,

      Thanks for reading.

      We couldn’t agree more, seeing a majestic Ray for the first time will make anyone’s heart jump. There’s really not a creature quite like them.

      I hope you’ll get to see one up close very soon.

      All the best!

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      Sadie

      May 14, 2020

      i’ve been interested in stingrays my whole life there my second favorite animal but my favorite stingray is the black diamond hybrid stingray. This guide makes me want to learn a lot more because theres a lot i don’t know and make me want to go to the aquariums with stingrays and photograph them and also go underwater to find more species because i believe that there are more. so thank you for making me want to do this stuff and for the information about these amazing flying underwater creators.

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      Sean

      May 18, 2020

      Hi Sadie,

      Thanks for reading.

      That’s awesome, I’m glad our article was able to inspire you. Agreed, the black diamond hybrid stingray is an amazing-looking creature!

      Best of luck with your stingray-exploring adventures!

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  • Aimee

    Feb 11, 2020

    Stingrays are a wild looking animal. Not to mention very colorful.
    One question I have is about their stings. Some stingrays seem to have 2 stings??? Is that kinda of like, one sting about to fall out and another taking its place???

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      Sean

      Feb 11, 2020

      Hi Aimee,

      Thanks for reading.

      Absolutely, Stingrays are fascinating! From what we know, they have just one sting. However, many Stingrays have protective barbs on their tails, so it’s possible that this is what you saw. On some Stingrays, the barbs are located at the base of the tail, and they can look like another shorter sting.

      Thanks again for reading, Aimee.

      All the best!

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  • Fran

    Mar 28, 2020

    I really enjoyed this article, the part-time model comment made me laugh out loud.

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      Sean

      Apr 1, 2020

      Hi Fran,

      I’m glad you liked it!

      Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

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  • Justina Ekuwa Annan

    Jul 15, 2020

    I love Elasmobranchs and I love the education here. Thank you so much for that. I will be glad if you can help me identify some photos I took at my landing beach

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      Sean

      Jul 16, 2020

      Hi Justina,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad you found the article useful.

      We’re no marine biologists, but we’d be more than happy to help you identify any species that we can. You can send your photos to [email protected].

      Looking forward to hearing from you.

      Have a great day!

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