what are manta rays?
The Gentle Giants of the Sea
Manta rays are giants of their kind, with the largest individuals reaching seven metres in width and weighing up to two tonnes. Despite their colossal presence, mantas are gentle creatures. They have the largest brain of all fish, and their intelligence and curiosity make encounters with manta rays a truly magical experience. It is little wonder that for many years they have been well known and loved by the SCUBA diving community. More recently, they have also found mainstream popularity with a wider, global audience, featuring in ground-breaking wildlife documentaries such as the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Their obvious intellect and complex social interactions set manta rays apart from other fish, but as they have only been scientifically studied in detail for around a decade, much of their life history remains a mystery.
Identifying the Manta Species
In 2009, scientists established that there are at least two distinct species of manta ray; the giant oceanic manta (Mobula birostris), and the reef manta (Mobula alfredi). There are several morphological and behavioural differences that distinguish the species apart. The most obvious differences relate to their body size, their colouration, and their habitat use, and are described below. However it‘s worth noting these are only rules of thumb - some mantas look very similar to the other species! There are also black-morph individuals found in both manta species.
Genetic work is continuing to further define the true nature of this separation, both for mantas and devil rays. For example, as recently as 2017 genetic studies revealed that manta rays are more closely related to devil rays than previously thought, and that they all belong to the same genus 'Mobula' (whereas before they separated as Manta and Mobula). Further still, researchers are currently debating the existence of a third species found exclusively around the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican Caribbean.