Resembling a bed of russet leaves stirred by the wind, a massive school of Cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) gathers off the coast of Mexico. Often measuring over 2 meters from wingtip to wingtip, thousands of these blunt-faced gliders migrate in groups called “fevers” of up to 10,000 rays in a clockwise direction from the Yucatan Peninsula through the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal bays, “chasing warm water, daylight and prey,” says Jennifer S. Holland in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine. They migrate twice yearly, north in late spring and south in late autumn according to Marcus Dunk of the UK Daily Mail.
Despite their poisonous stingers, Cownose rays are shy and non-threatening, particularly when in large schools, like those captured here by amateur photographer, Sandra Critelli, who spotted this incredible community while looking for whale sharks.
The Cownose ray is a species of eagle ray that is typically brown-backed with a whitish or yellowish belly. Its distinctive high-domed head gives it an almost comical bovine appearance, like this wonderful fella here. The Cownose ray has a stinger called a spine on its tail, close to the ray’s body. The spine is lined with teeth along its lateral edges and is coated with weak venom that causes symptoms like a bee sting. This dude feeds on clams, oysters, hard clams and other invertebrates. Its two modified fins on its front side produces suction, allowing it to draw food into its mouth, where it crushes its food with its dental plates.
According to marine ecologist Julie Neer, “these guys have only one pup per litter and one litter per year.” Which makes a school of thousands a remarkable thing indeed, adds Holland.
Around 70 species of stingrays live in our oceans. Related to skates and sharks, they’ve never been widely fished for food, mainly because of their rubbery flesh. Generally, the most prized parts of the stingray are the wings, the “cheek” (the area surrounding the eyes) and the liver. In Singapore and Malaysia, they commonly barbecue stingray over charcoal then serve it with spicy sambal sauce. Pickled stingray (“kaest skata”) is typically eaten on December 23 as a traditional favorite in Iceland.