Southern Stingrays are among Tampa Bay's most commonly seen underwater inhabitants. They are found in shallow water along shorelines throughout the bay, where they grub in the sand for crustaceans, mollusks and small fish, and bury themselves to hide or rest.
Stingrays, like sharks and skates, are members of the elasmobranch family, meaning they lack a spine. Instead, their bodies are made of tough cartilage.
Southern stingrays are most frequently observed alone or in pairs, unlike their more sociable cousins, the cownose rays, which are often seen in large "squadrons" in the bay.
The body of a southern stingray is diamond-shaped, with a dark gray, green or brown upper surface, and a pale underside. Their tails may be twice as long as their bodies. Their eyes are on top of their heads and their mouths are on the bottom. Since they cannot see their prey, they use their sense of smell to find food. The rays face into the current while feeding, and the current carries the sediment away from their mouths. Little is known about their average life span and growth rate.
Rays are preyed upon by sharks and even by large goliath grouper, which consider them an especially tasty meal.
Stingrays swim with a flying motion, propelled by their large fins which flap like birds' wings as they move gracefully through the water. Their tail has a venomous barb or spine which is used for defense and can inflict serious pain on people who accidentally step on them. They have a bad reputation as an aggressive animal, but when threatened they normally swim away. If they are attacked by predators or stepped on they will use their spine in defense.
The best way to avoid a sting from the ray is to do the "stingray shuffle" whenever you are in coastal water. Shuffling your feet slowly as you walk will alert the rays to your presence and they will likely swim away from you.
Several other types of stingrays also inhabit Tampa Bay, including the Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus), which has no barb and is likely to be seen in large congregations. One of the most striking rays found in the bay is the Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinari). This ray has dramatic white spots on a dark body. One cool thing about this ray is its penchant for leaping completely out of the water, much like a porpoise.