When I meet people and tell them I work with stingrays, it elicits various responses depending on their background, but almost invariably their chosen words include a reference to the late Steve Irwin. I cannot say that his death in any way influenced my choice of research, as in fact I had already started chasing rays around before he met his unfortunate demise. However, it does to some extent contextualise my work, and the relationship between any ecologist and their study animal (which is hopefully always one of respect).
Let me bust a myth straight away by saying stingrays are not aggressive, ferocious killers. Quite the opposite, they will do their utmost to get away from you if they think you are a threat to them (or just sit there and slyly watch you approach slowly). That is not to say they are not dangerous, in the sense that if you accidentally step on one in shallow water it will be incredibly painful. The barbed spine on their tail is merely a defensive strategy in their part, and I might say not a very effective one either when it comes to fending off sharks. In humans it is the toxin contained within the mucous sheath of the spine that causes intense pain.
Shortly after Steve Irwin’s death I came across a number of silly facebook sites and pages, where their authors stated they would actively kill any stingray they saw, as their personal vengeance of Steve’s death, as if all rays were somehow responsible or consciously out to kill us. Steve was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his death was the combination of freak accident and poor judgement.
Fear of stingrays is not limited to viewers of the discovery channel. Many fishermen we meet through our fieldwork hook rays by accident while targeting other fish and will kill the ray, or at the very least chop off it’s tail before unhooking it (this is in part why you see so many rays with truncated tails). However, in some parts of Latin America stingrays are actively targeted for their meat, and these fisheries are only increasing in number with the decline of wild fish stocks.
I have been following stingrays in beautiful turquoise waters for about 5 years and have experienced nothing more than awe for these animals. My research has taken me to isolated places such as Glover’s Reef Atoll in Belize and the Turks and Caicos islands, studying their behaviour, movement, diet and population dynamics. With this work I seek to build our understanding of this little known group of flat sharks, in order to provide for better conservation management – which relies on accurate ecological information.
More detailed information on this to come in later posts. If you cant wait, check out our publications page for the scientific articles.
Post by Alex Tilley