10 Incredible Manta Ray Facts

manta ray swimming close to ocean floor

Written by Patrick Sather

Updated: August 17, 2023

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10 Manta Ray Facts
Manta rays have mouths in front of their heads while a stingray’s mouth is under its head.

Manta rays belong to the genus Mobula in the family Mobulidae. There are two recognized ray species – the reef ray (Mobula alfredi) and the giant oceanic manta ray (Mobula birostris). They sport recognizable, triangular pectoral fins and forward-facing mouths. You can find them in warm, subtropical, and tropical waters near the surface and the sea bed. Here are 10 incredible manta ray facts that demonstrate what makes these graceful fish so amazing.

10. Manta Rays Are Among the Largest Fish in the Ocean

Biggest Fish: Giant Ocean Manta Ray

Manta rays are part of the biggest fish in the ocean.

First up on our list of manta ray facts, we’ll explore the most striking physical characteristic of these creatures – their size. The most giant manta rays rank among the ocean’s largest fish. In fact, only a handful of shark species measure larger, such as the tiger shark, great white shark, basking shark, and whale shark

The giant oceanic manta ray is easily the most physically imposing of all manta rays. Some specimens can measure up to 22 feet wide and 16 feet long and weigh up to 2,980 pounds. Meanwhile, reef manta rays measure slightly longer at around 18 feet but only weigh about half as much as giant oceanic manta rays. 

9. Manta Rays Are Filter Feeders

Giant Manta Ray swimming

Manta rays are bottom and filter feeders.

Given their large size, it’s tempting to picture manta rays as voracious, predatory fish. However, this image of manta rays prowling the open seas in search of large prey couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, manta rays are filter feeders and bottom feeders that frequently target small aquatic animals such as zooplankton, krill, shrimp, and planktonic crabs. 

When food is abundant near the surface or in open water, manta rays feed by funneling tiny organisms into their wide, rectangular mouths. Specialized gills trap plankton as water flows through, and then they cough the food into their mouths. Manta rays will also dive deep below the surface and engage in bottom-feeding behavior. Near the sea floor, mantas often prey on small and medium-sized fish.

8. The Markings on Each Manta Ray Are Unique

Biggest Fish: Reef Manta Ray

Manta rays have distinct markings on their undersides.

Along with their large size, distinct markings are also one of the most noticeable features of manta rays. They normally sport black and white markings in the style of a chevron. The top of the back usually appears black, while the tips of the fins and “shoulders” often look white. However, some manta rays can appear mostly dark or white, and there have even been sightings of pink mantas in the wild.

The underside of manta rays is mostly pale or white except for a few dark markings. However, while the top of manta rays look fairly alike, the bottom varies from one ray to another. Each ray features characteristic markings, so no two rays appear exactly alike. This allows researchers and possibly even other rays to distinguish one ray from another. 

7. Manta Rays Are Very Intelligent

Manta ray floating underwater among plankton

Manta rays can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Next up, we have the most thought-provoking entry on our list of manta ray facts. Most people consider fish to be rather unintelligent, especially compared to aquatic mammals such as dolphins or whales. However, manta rays not only buck this stereotype but also serve as the poster child for intelligent fish. 

Manta rays have the largest brains and brain-to-size ratio of any fish and can even recognize themselves in a mirror. The ability to recognize oneself is a high-cognition test that was long thought reserved for a select few creatures, including elephants, gorillas, and the aforementioned dolphin. Moreover, manta rays display other forms of intelligence, such as engaging in group feeding behaviors that employ complex tactics and levels of coordination among members.  

6. Manta Rays Never Stop Moving

Manta ray swimming in coral reef.

Manta rays are in a perpetual state of motion.

All fish can be lumped into two basic categories; those that must be in a perpetual state of motion and those that can stand to stay still every once in a while. While this classification is simple, it’s an important distinction for understanding the lifestyle and habits of different fish.

Manta rays fall into the category of fish that never stop moving. Manta rays are always active, whether swimming, gliding, or hovering through the water. They must always be in motion in order to ensure that enough oxygen in the water around them passes over their gills. Unlike some fish that rely on a swim bladder to stay buoyant, manta rays have to constantly swim in order to keep from sinking. They share this trait with most shark species and tuna. 

5. Manta Rays Are Quite Agile

Manta Ray seen from below

Manta Rays swim as gracefully as birds fly.

If you’ve never seen a manta ray swim, it’s difficult to describe just how gracefully they move through the water. They flap their radial fins like the wings of a bird and can spend prolonged periods just gliding or hovering as they speed forward through the water. Although they appear rather delicate, they’ve adapted to generate great power with each flap of their fins. 

Typically, manta rays swim at a speed of around 14 kilometers per hour but can move up to 35 kilometers per hour, particularly when escaping predators. When feeding, mantas will swim in one direction, then execute crisp 180-degree turns and proceed to feed in another direction. Additionally, they will tilt up, down, and even sideways or perform full 360-degree turns to maximize their food intake.

4. Some Manta Rays Like to Visit Cleaning Stations

Animals That Live in Coral Reefs: Manta Rays

Manta rays allow themselves to be cleaned on coral reefs.

This next entry is one of the stranger items to make our list of manta ray facts. As previously mentioned, manta rays are quite intelligent and may even possess a measure of self-awareness. Apparently, this self-awareness has also led them to be quite conscious of their appearance and personal hygiene. 

Researchers have documented manta rays visiting so-called “cleaning stations” on coral reefs. Manta rays slow down as they near these stations in order to allow cleaner fish to swim up and feed on parasites that cling to their bodies. They mostly visit these stations at high tide, and some evidence suggests that manta rays possess the ability to remember their environment, allowing them to revisit the same stations repeatedly. 

3. Manta Rays Can Live For a Long Time

Largest Manta Ray - Swimming in Ocean

Manta rays can live as long as 50 years.

Courtship rituals among manta rays continue to baffle scientists and prove difficult to capture on film. The ritual often occurs either in the presence of a full moon or when a male closely pursues a female for an extended period of time. Females gestate for around 12 to 13 months and normally only give birth once every 1 or 2 years. Manta rays are not as fertile as other fish, as females typically only give birth to one or sometimes two pups at a time. 

Manta rays only reach sexual maturity between 8 to 15 years old and have a relatively low birth rate. To offset this seeming evolutionary disadvantage, manta rays have evolved exceptionally long lifespans, at least compared to most fish. Manta rays can reportedly live up to 40 years in the wild and possibly 50 years in captivity.  

2. Manta Rays Pose No Threat to Humans

Manta ray filter feeding above a coral reef in the blue Komodo waters

Despite their large size, manta rays pose no threat to humans.

People have misunderstood manta rays for much of history. On the one hand, the ancient Moche people of Peru worshiped manta rays. Meanwhile, mariners feared manta rays for their size and appearance throughout the ages, falsely believing that they would pull ships out to sea. Still, others conflate manta rays with stingrays, which are known for their venomous barb.

Despite their large size, manta rays pose no known threat to humans. In fact, manta rays are quite placid and are a favorite among divers and swimmers both for their grace and easy-going nature. Given their docile nature and beauty, it’s no surprise that manta rays are often called the “angels of the sea.”

1. The IUCN Lists Manta Rays as Vulnerable

Close up of a swimming stingray

Manta ray populations are in steep decline because of overfishing and other factors.

Image: Georg Brandt LE, Shutterstock

The final entry on our list of manta ray facts is also the saddest. Unfortunately, manta rays face a number of existential threats to their survival as a species. Overfishing is the primary threat to manta ray populations, with fisheries targeting mantas and the fish they need to survive. In addition, they are threatened by pollution, climate change, and the tourism industry. 

Given these threats and their long and slow reproductive cycle, manta ray populations are in steep decline. Although a number of organizations and countries have enacted regulations to protect manta rays, these measures have proven insufficient to stabilize manta rays populations. As a result, the IUCN lists reef mantas as a Vulnerable species and giant mantas as an Endangered species. 

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