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Tampa Bay Estuary Program


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Cownose Ray Featured Creature Archive from Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Rhinoptera bonasus

If you've attended a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game, chances are you've been up close and personal with the cownose rays who call the Rays Touch Tank home.

But the creatures are common visitors in Tampa Bay during the spring and summer. The rays travel in huge schools, and it's a stunning sight to see hundreds of wing tips breaking the surface as they slice through the water.

While you won't find any bovines taking a dip in Tampa Bay, the Rhinoptera bonasus, or cownose ray, is named for the landlubbers because the rays' distinctive square, indented snout resembles that of a cow.

Instead, the rays are a type of cartilaginous fish - which means their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone - and they are closely related to sharks.

The cownose rays can be found in broad swaths of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and they are one of at least 10 species of rays that can be found in Florida waters.

Aside from their distinctive snout, cownose rays can be recognized because in these waters they are usually 20 inches to 30 inches across; have a brownish-yellow top, or dorsal surface; and a white or whitish-yellow bottom, or ventral surface.

Unlike some rays, which like to burrow in the sand, these guys are constantly on the move. Never ones to go it alone, cownose rays have been known to travel in schools of up to 5,000 as they cruise through Tampa Bay.

While it can be a sight to behold, it also can be devastating to other species.

With their hard tooth plates and powerful jaw muscles, the cownose rays can have a feast in short order, devouring crabs, shrimp, oysters and fish, and through their chowing down they can prove devastating to local shellfish beds.

On the other end of the spectrum, despite being closely related, the rays are a favorite meal for sharks.

Unlike most fish, which lay eggs, a ray embryo grows inside its mother, and then she gives birth to one live baby, known as a pup.

It's not unusual for folks to use the generic term "stingrays," to describe all types of rays, and each cownose ray has one or sometimes two spines on its whip-like tail, which it uses to protect itself against sharks or even an errant step by a human.

The sting can be so painful, it's the stuff of legend. Capt. John Smith, the founder of the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown, Va., was stung while trying to spear what is believed to be a cownose ray way back in 1608. He was in such pain, he thought he was going to die, but instead quickly recovered and ate the ray for dinner.

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