Explore 10 different types of rays (Batoidea) and learn how to distinguish them. From the graceful manta rays to the elusive stingrays, discover their distinct characteristics and unravel the secrets of these captivating species.
Oceanic Manta Ray
The Oceanic manta ray is the largest ray species in the world. From wing tip to wing tip, they can grow to at least 23ft and weigh up to an impressive 4,000 pounds!
Apart from their size, the Oceanic manta ray is distinguished by the markings on their backs, which include large black and white patches mostly above their shoulders. Each has their own unique pattern.
With so many different types of rays, it can be hard to tell them apart but one of the main distinguishable features of the Oceanic manta ray are the horns located either side of their huge mouths. These are used to funnel plankton – a manta rays favourite snack!
Oceanic mantas are often found congregating on reefs particularly susceptible to current, which attract schooling fish and plankton. The mantas use these areas as both feeding and cleaning stations.
They inhabit warm tropical waters worldwide, and spend most of their time between the surface and approximately 400ft deep.
Oceanic manta rays have a lifespan of around 15-20 years and are mostly preyed upon by sharks and killer whales. However, human factors such as unsustainable fishing and an ever increasing demand for their body parts has led the Oceanic manta ray to become the first manta ray to be listed as an endangered species.
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|Oceanic manta ray
|Wingspan: 23 ft (27 m)
|4400 lb (2000 kg)
Reef Manta Ray
The reef manta ray is the worlds second-largest species of ray, and has a maximum wingspan of approximately 15 feet. Often referred to as ‘Birds of the Sea’ because their two triangular pectoral fins resemble the wings of a bird.
Much like the Oceanic manta, reef manta’s also have horns used to feed on plankton. Their most common color is either black or dark grey, with a white underside.
The reef manta’s upper body has a small dorsal fin, which from the surface can easily be mistaken for a Dolphin or Shark.
This species of ray is found in the tropical waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans near coral reefs around islands and atolls.
Today, the reef manta is classed as a vulnerable species due to entanglement, plastic pollution and illegal fishing operations.
|Reef manta ray
|Wingspan: 15 ft (4.5 m)
|1550 lb (700 kg)
The devil ray fish stems from the Mobula family, which includes the manta and spotted eagle ray. This ray species is widespread, and can be found anywhere from the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
It can be quite difficult to differentiate between a reef manta and a devil ray, and they are often mistaken for one another due to being so similar in shape, color and size.
On closer inspection, you will notice that the devil ray is much pointer than a Manta. Their heads are also narrower, and their cephalic fins, or horns, point forward rather than curling around the mouth like a manta rays do. This is where the devil ray gets its name.
Although their name may sound threatening, the devil ray is a shy creature, feeding mostly on plankton and krill.
Devil rays are impressive divers, making them one of the fastest marine species in the world. These ray fish are known to dive down to depths of up to 2km at speeds of 13mph! They are also amazing acrobats, often flipping and jumping right out of the water.
|Devil ray, bentfin devil ray, bentfin devil ray
|Wingspan: 11 ft (3.4 m)
|132 lb (220 kg)
Spotted Eagle Ray
Spotted eagle rays are found in warm and temperate waters. They have a particularly strong swimming ability and can travel long distances across open waters, migrating seasonally based on water temperature.
The spotted eagle ray is easily distinguished by their long, broad snout and rather friendly faces. Their plate-like mouths allow them to crush pray, meaning some of their favourite foods include crustaceans, molluscs and worms.
Growing to approximately 10 feet wide, no two spotted eagle rays have the same pattern as their dark blue upper bodies are peppered in eye-catching white spots.
They have very venomous barbs located on their long tails which are used against predators. Being stung by one of these will cause immense pain.
Spotted eagle rays are beautiful creatures which tend to swim near the surface in large schools, and are often seen dancing with one another and leaping out of the water especially if they are being pursued by a predator.
|Spotted eagle ray
|Wingspan: 10 ft (3 m)
|507 lb (230 kg)
The southern stingray is found in the subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and most famously ‘Stingray City’ in the Cayman Islands. They live within sandy bottom lagoons, and coral reef areas.
Unlike other different types of ray such as the Blue Spotted Stingray, Southern ray fish are not afraid of people, and groups of rays will quite happily swim right up to humans out of curiosity.
To detect a southern stingray, look out for their flat diamond-shaped bodies. Their upper body color is usually a solid dark brown or grey. They generally grow between 2-4 feet, however their sharp, serrated tails are almost twice that length!
This stingray species is famously known for their venomous tail, but unless they’re threatened by a predator they are actually quite docile.
Southern stingrays spend most of their time buried within the sand unless they are on the hunt for food. They have a great sense of smell and touch and use the electroreceptors in their snouts to seek out prey.
The stingray will uncover its preferred snack of shellfish, shrimp or crab by blowing water from their mouths and flapping their wings in the sand.
|Disc: 6.5 ft (2 m)
|214 lb (97 kg)
The pelagic stingray may look like your average bottom-dwelling ray fish, but this type of ray will not be not found undulating on the seabed. Instead, these stingrays spend most of their time flying around the open ocean.
Unlike some other types of stingrays, the pelagic glides through the water, with a similar technique to a manta or eagle ray. They prefer temperate waters, and are known to migrate all over the world.
The pelagic stingray has a disc size of 2-4 feet and their whip-like stinging tail is at least double the length of their bodies.
This particular type of ray fish has a very distinctive wedge-shaped disc, which is either a deep purple or dark blue color. They also have relatively small eyes, meaning they spend the vast majority of their time at around 300 feet, where the ocean is at its brightest.
Pelagic stingrays feed mostly on krill, but are also known to eat jellyfish, squid and small reef fish. By using their pectoral fins, pelagic stingrays are able to direct prey right into their mouths by using their sharp, pointed teeth.
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|Disc: 3.3 ft (1 m)
|110 lb (50 kg)
Blue Spotted Stingray
Found in tropical waters throughout the Indo-Pacific, the blue-spotted stingray, or ribbontail ray fish, is relatively small, with an average disc size of around 1 foot.
Their common name comes from the highly noticeable bright blue spots which cover their mustard colored flattened bodies.
The mouth and gills of the blue-spotted stingray are found on its underside, but when feeding in sandy areas, it will use the extra spiracles next to its eyes to breath.
In the wild, this type of ray is particularly shy around humans, and will often swim away quickly in the presence of snorkelers and divers. Their long tails hide two venomous spines, which give off a very painful sting.
This type of ray fish feed on molluscs, crustaceans and small fish which are found on coral reefs, by hiding in crevices and waiting to attack.
Despite the fact that there are many different types of ray, the blue-spotted stingray is commonly collected for aquariums, due to their attractive colors. Sadly they do not live long in captivity.
|Blue spotted stingray, blue spotted ribbontail ray
|Disc: 1ft (30 cm)
|11 lb (5 kg)
There are many different types of ray, but there is one ray in particular which is capable of producing an electric shock!
The electric ray has few natural predators due to their electric defence mechansim. Two kidney-shaped electric organs located on its back, can produce between 8 to 220 volts of electricity.
Found near muddy or sandy sea floors, these rays disguise themselves in the sand and ambush prey by giving them a shock.
Electric rays are known to be aggressive and often chase divers. Their strongest shock can knock a human unconscious
Electric rays range from approximately 1-6 feet in length. They are smooth-skinned, with a circular body and have a shorter, thicker tail than some other different types of rays. The tail itself has three pectoral fins that stand upright, making the electric ray easy to recognise.
This particular type of ray species has very small eyes, so relies on its electro receptors to detect its prey, feeding on Halibut, Herrings and Worms.
|Electric ray, torpedo, numbfish, crampfish
|Disc: 2 ft (0.6 m), Length: 6 ft (1.8 m)
|90 lb (41 kg)
The beautiful butterfly ray can be found worldwide, mostly in warmer coastal waters and sometimes buried in the muddy seabeds of bays and estuaries.
Their name is derived from the shape of their flat disc, which wider than it is long, hence the shape of a butterfly!
Unlike some other different types of ray species, the butterfly ray has a very short tail which is not venomous.
This ray fish has a wingspan of up to 4.5 feet. Their attractive bodily patterns usually consist of white and dark swirls and dots over a grey or dark green base.
The butterfly ray feed mostly on bottom-living invertebrates and small fish which they ambush by disguising themselves in the sand.
|Butterfly ray, diamond skate, skeete
|Wingspan: 13 ft (4 m)
|130 lb (60 kg)
The official name of this shark/ray fish hybrid is the bowmouth guitarfish.
Shark rays (bowmouth guitarfish) are found on muddy seabeds close to the coral reef areas of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. This species of ray gets its name from its guitar-shaped body.
They have a round arc-shaped face much like stingray, and a body which tapers similar to that of a shark. The shark ray can grow to an impressive 9 feet long.
The pectoral fins and nape are covered in tiny sharp thorns which are used as protection. These also make them look quite prehistoric.
Their color changes with age, starting out very dark and gradually lightening to reveal light brown / taupe colored upper bodies covered in beautiful white spots which are used as camouflage.
The shark ray feeds on crustaceans including lobster and shrimp, and uses its strong ridged teeth to grind down prey.
Unfortunately this species is dwindling due to overfishing as the shark ray is targeted specifically for shark finning, or rather ‘shark fin soup’ - considered a delicacy in many countries.
|Shark ray, bowmouth guitarfish, mud skate
|Length: 9 ft (2.7 m)
|298 lb (135 kg)
How to differentiate rays
With over 600 species of rays in existence, it can be hard to spot the difference between individual species. Hopefully our infographic below with photos, facts, sizes, and what features to look out for, will help guide you.
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How to spot if a ray is male or female
The difference between male and female rays can be determined by their pelvic fins. Male rays and stingrays (as well as sharks) have two elongated appendages known as claspers whereas females don't have these.
Claspers are modifications of the pelvic fins and located on the inner margin of the pelvic fins. They are used to transfer sperm to the female during mating.
Manta vs Stingray differences
People often confuse these related species with each other. Mainly due to their similarities, such as, flattened body shapes and wide pectoral fins that are fused to their head.
Aside from a noticeable size difference, (manta's being far bigger) one of the easiest signs to separate a manta ray vs stingray are found on their tails. Manta rays do not have a tail "stinger" or barb like stingrays. That means that manta rays can't sting you or anybody for that matter.
Manta rays also have eyes on the side of their heads, whilst stingrays have eyes on top of their body.
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I saw many rays flipping/ dancing so close to the shore near Durban (North Coast), South Africa several years ago. I would love to know what they were, if they were indeed rays. They looked black or dark gray. They also looked very excited in the water. I did not know if they were feeding or mating or what! It was a privilege to witness.
Living in Lake Haven, Central Coast NSW
- had a close encounter with a ray at my local beach, Cabbage Tree Bay, Norah Head & wondering which species it was?
- very gentle, broad like a manta, but smaller & without the frontal ‘horned shaped’ cephalic fins – gorgeous to see!
Wonderful post! I’d love to see a devil or manta in person! They are so big and magestic, very sad to read how many are becoming endangered.
I wondered about the different rays so I really enjoyed this post! Thank you so much.
To Cindy H: those are Lesser Devil rays. Distinguished from juvenile Giant mantas by the shorter, straighter cephalic fins or “horns” in front of the mouth.
My sister and I are in Gulf Shores and have seen many pods of small black rays swimming close to people and the shore. Are they baby manta rays or another kind that stays small? They are probably only about 12” across from wing to wing.
The blue spotted stingray that you say is Indo-Pacific is in the Texas gulf because I saw one while wading in corpus Christi.
It was beautiful and I had my wife come look at it as well. I tried to feed it but it kept moving away. We go ally left it alone but it was there.
While shore fishing with my son he caught a ray. He removed the hock and set it free. We have a disagreement about what kind of stingray was caught. Southern or Atlantic. How do we determine which of these two were caught?
Jay Elfstrom,the rays you encounter are most likely Cownose rays.
Several years ago while on a surfing trip to St George island, Florida we had the amazing privilege to interact with a very large group of rays. There were hundreds of them. they were short and a light brown or tan color. I I have always wondered which type they were. After reading you’re wonderful post here, I believe that they were southern stingrays. They were very docile almost inquisitive. The only difference that I can note between those rays and the ones you have described here is that they were not dark brown but light brown. This was a wonderful poster read and I thank you for it.