If you ever go snorkeling in tropical waters, it is likely you are going to see a beautiful, winged eagle ray glide by you. Gracefully gliding through the water, the eagle ray truly looks like a bird of the sea. When you see it, “fly” by you, you’ll understand why it is called an eagle ray. There are many types of amazing fish in the sea, but these fish are perhaps one of the prettiest. It is hard not to be awestruck when you see them leap, yes leap, out of the water.

If you are looking for information about rays in aquariums, check out our article, here. If you want all the facts you ever needed about the eagle ray, read on. 

Eagle Ray Facts

eagle ray from below, showing gills, mouth, and head profile

Image: CC 2.0, by Jon Worth, via Wikimedia Commons

Eagle rays are the largest group of cartilaginous fish in the scientific family Myliobatidae. Unlike stingrays, which eagle rays are commonly mistaken for, the eagle ray does not live on the ocean floor. Instead, the eagle ray lives in the open sea.

Eagle rays have longer than normal tails with venomous spines. Their bodies are a well-defined rhomboidal shaped body with wings. Rays are anywhere from 1.6 feet to 29.9 feet big.

During courtship, male eagle rays get a little frisky and bite the female’s wings. After the female’s eggs are fertilized and she goes through the gestation period, the ovoviviparous fish (meaning the eggs of their young hatch inside of their bodies) can give birth to as many as six young at a time.

Like other types of rays, the eagle ray lives in tropical waters off the coasts of the Eastern Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea. In fact, the eagle ray can be seen just nonchalantly swimming around near beaches in those regions. Although eagle rays have been found in water more than 900 feet deep, they prefer it to be 3 to 98 feet deep.

While there are a number of different eagle rays, in this article we will be focusing on just two: the spotted eagle ray and the manta ray.

Spotted eagle ray facts

eagle ray from above, showing white circles on dark mahogany brown, head profile, wings, and tail

Image: CC 2.0, by James St. John, via Wikimedia Commons

Spotted eagle rays are the second largest of the eagle ray family. They can grow to be as much as 16 feet long with ten-foot wingspans, and weigh more than 500 pounds. The eagle ray is dark blue or black with white spots on the top of its body and a white belly. Their flat snouts resemble a duck’s bill and it’s the reason the eagle ray is sometimes referred to as a duckbill ray or spotted duckbill ray.

Like other eagle rays, the spotted variety prefers tropical waters and is distributed across the globe. However, they’re often associated with coral reefs.

The spotted ray feeds on, crabs, shrimp, mollusks and small fish. Further, this ray sometimes digs its snout into the sand, flaps its wings causing a cloud to form around it and finds food on the seafloor.

While the spotted eagle ray is a generally shy fish and doesn’t bother snorkelers, except to maybe check them out like the snorkelers are checking them out, it does sometimes end up in boats. Their propensity for jumping out of the water has led to the death of a woman in the Florida Keys in a freak accident. Like other eagle rays, the spotted species has several venomous, barbed stingers on its long tail.

Sadly, due to fishing and commercial marine trade, it’s labeled “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature”s (IUCN) Red List. They are protected in many places including Florida, where it is illegal to trade, fish or purchase them.

While the spotted eagle ray is most likely to be seen alone, they do sometimes travel in schools, like other fish.

Watch the video below to learn more:

Manta ray facts

The manta ray is the largest species of ray in the world. Its wingspan averages 22 feet wide, but has been known to be as much as thirty feet and weigh more than 2,900 pounds. This ray has triangle shaped pectoral wings that arch backward. Unlike the spotted eagle ray, it has a large forward-facing mouth and horn-shaped fins on either side of its mouth. Its eyes sit behind the fins.

While the manta ray is usually dark on top and white on the bottom, they have dark spots underneath and white spots on top that are different on each ray. Interestingly, the manta ray has the largest brain of any fish and that brain keeps them warm when they dive over 6,500 feet below the sea.

Manta rays are primarily filter feeders, eating about 13 percent of its body weight in zooplankton each week. While feeding in plankton-rich areas of the sea, as many as fifty manta rays may congregate. Like spotted eagle rays, manta rays jump out of the water sometimes. However, they do not jump nearly as often as the spotted species.

Like the spotted eagle ray, manta rays are not a threat to you. Unfortunately, humans are a threat to them. The manta ray is protected in some areas–primarily international waters. Hunters have targeted the manta ray for their meat, liver oil and skin.

No, the spotted stingray is not an eagle ray

spotted stingray not an eagle ray yellow in color, sporting bright teal blue spots and eyes raised on stalks,

Image: Public domain, by Jan Derk, via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note that not all rays belong to the eagle ray family. For instance, you may have seen the spotted stingray in the past and confused it for the spotted eagle ray. two fish share quite a few similarities, though. Both of them can be found in coral reef areas.Don’t touch either of their tails as both venomous. If you are snorkeling, the spotted stingray is not going to bother you, it’s generally shy around humans. Like the spotted eagle ray, the IUCN has labeled the spotted stingray “near threatened.” The fish both eat mollusks, shrimp and crab.

Those similarities are cool, but they don’t matter a bit because scientifically they are very different. This is demonstrated by their classifications. As we’ve mentioned, spotted eagle rays belong to the Myliobatidae family. The spotted stingray belongs to the Dasyatidae family. That is all you need to know, to understand they are not the same.

What are you waiting for? Go snorkeling

What’s that? You have never been snorkeling or seen one of these beautiful sea animals? What are you waiting for? Many of us enjoy tropical vacations and the next time you go, you have to put this on your vacation bucket list. We know, you just want to relax on the beach, but we promise you will not regret the experience. When you see an eagle ray leap out of the water for the first time, you will be left speechless. They really are that amazing.


Featured image: CC 2.0, by Peter Black, via Wikimedia Commons