Many people know what stingrays look like, but there are also a lot of misconceptions about them. Their name is off-putting, reminding us that these creatures can “sting” with a sharp venomous barb on their tails. Fear of stingrays was tragically validated in 2006. The popular zookeeper and television personality Steve Irwin was fatally stabbed in the heart by a stingray. The incident occurred while swimming in chest-deep waters of the coast of Australia.
Despite their potential danger, aquariums often offer small children the chance to pet and feed captive stingrays. And if you visit Grand Cayman, you’ll find that one of the most popular attractions is feeding wild stingrays. So, what’s the story with these enigmatic creatures? Are they deadly, safe, or a little of both? And wouldn’t you like to know why a group of stingrays is called a “fever?”
- Stingrays are easy to identify from their flat bodies and long tails with venomous spines. Their stings are very painful but very rarely fatal.
- They don’t have bones but are made of cartilage like sharks, and like your ears and nose.
- Stingrays spend a lot of time feeding on the seabed, but when they swim they undulate their bodies or flap their “wings” and appear to “fly.”
- They are actually pretty peaceful and avoid people unless provoked. Their mouths even look like they are smiling good-naturedly!
- The number one enemy of a stingray is the hammerhead shark, which uses its wide head to hold the stingray down on the ocean floor and bite it repeatedly.
- It is safe to handle stingrays in designated places where they have become accustomed to people, being careful to follow all instructions strictly.
- Stingrays might lash out at people who step on them while wading in the ocean or who they mistake for sharks chasing them.
- Soaking the wound in the hottest water the person can stand will help reduce pain and deactivate the venom.
- Watch for signs of an allergic reaction, which can be fatal, and get the person to a hospital immediately.
All About Stingrays
Stingrays aren’t hard to identify, as there isn’t too much else like them in the ocean. They are large, flat, pancake-like marine animals with whip-like tails that have venomous barbs on them. Like sharks, and like your ears and nose, they don’t have bones but are made of flexible cartilage. Amazingly, there are actually 220 different species of stingrays that can range in size from the diameter of a dinner plate to the length of a canoe (16 feet). Sometimes you’ll hear the terms “stingray” and “manta ray” used interchangeably, but even though they look similar, they have some striking differences. Manta rays are related to stingrays but are tremendously larger, growing up to 23 feet long, have a wider “wingspan,” and do not have barbed tails.
Stingrays live mainly in warm tropical waters along the coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. Some live in the deep ocean, though, as far north as Canada and as far South as South America, Africa, and Australia. There are also some freshwater species that live in rivers like the Amazon and Mekong, which, to be honest, are so large they could understandably be mistaken for seas. Some of the biggest stingray species in the world are the freshwater kind. For example, the giant freshwater stingray (Himantura chaophraya) of Southeast Asia can weigh up to 1,300 pounds.
To swim, stingrays may bend their “wings” in a flapping motion, or undulate their whole bodies in a waving motion. This is a really effective way of moving through the water, so they can reach speeds of up to 30 mph, which, for comparison, is faster than most dogs can run. Rather than swimming around, though, stingrays love chilling on the ocean floor, buried lightly in the sand to help camouflage them from predators such as sharks while they feed on bottom-dwelling creatures like worms, clams, and shrimp.
They locate their prey by using electrical sensors to detect their bioelectric fields. They have a strong set of teeth that are able to crunch through the shells of mollusks. Tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, seals, sea lions, and large fish are their mortal enemies. A hammerhead shark uses its wide head as a tool to hold down the body of a stingray while biting it repeatedly until it dies. On its part, if attacked, a stingray will thrust its barbed tail upward to stab the shark and scare it off or kill it.
Why is a Group of Stingrays Called a “Fever?”
Stingrays are mostly solitary creatures but they do come together in large groups when they breed and migrate. Some of the largest species never stop swimming and migrate in enormous groups of up to 10,000 individuals. The term “fever” does not refer to temperature, but to the frenetic activity of such large groups of stingrays during mating and when competing for food in a concentrated area. So it’s used more in the sense of activity at a “fever pitch.”
Is it Safe to Handle or Swim with Stingrays?
If you are visiting an area where stingrays regularly interact with people, then it is safe to swim with them. Just make sure you follow directions. In some cases, the barbs have been removed so that there is no possibility of a sting. In other cases, you might go on an organized tour to interact with wild stingrays that still have their barbs. As long as you are in an area where tourists regularly visit, the stingrays that gather there are used to being gently handled and fed and are unlikely to hurt you.
Stingrays might suck on your skin, as they do when searching for food on the ocean floor. It is harmless unless you allow the stingray to stay too long and leave a temporary mark.
Any time you are in an area with stingrays, even if they are gentle and docile, it is best to walk forwards. Do not step backward. Walk with a shuffling motion that will warn any stingrays on the bottom to move. Handle stingrays gently and do not try to hold on to them. Let them pass gently through your hands without touching their barbs. They may gather around you to explore, but just move around slowly in a calm and flowing way. These strategies will ensure you and the ray will both have a nice rewarding experience.
Getting Stung by a Stingray
When people get stung, it is often because they step on a stingray accidentally or try to handle one. A sting may also occur when a stingray mistakes a person for a predator. Thousands of people are stung by them every year, just like jellyfish. However, only about 20 people have ever died from stings. There are two ways this can happen: a barb hits a vital organ, or the victim is allergic to the toxin. In the case of the world-beloved Steve Irwin, the short-tail stingray that killed him likely mistook him for a shark. It stabbed him hundreds of times, including a fatal stab to the heart.
In most cases, however, the barb of a stingray causes a bleeding wound that can swell and discolor. People who have been through this say the pain is excruciating and worsens over the first 90 minutes. Usually, it diminishes in six to 48 hours but sometimes can last for weeks.
What to Do if You Get Stung
If stung, immediately apply pressure to stop the bleeding. Immerse the wound in the hottest water you can stand without scalding yourself. This might be a temperature of about 113° F. This deactivates the venom and helps deaden the pain. After the pain diminishes somewhat, gently wash and bandage the wound. Infection is a possible complication of a stingray wound. For this reason, it is recommended to have it checked out by a medical professional.
The pain and surprise of an attack can cause some victims to feel nauseous and have an elevated heart rate. However, if these symptoms are severe or accompanied by muscle cramps, fainting, fever, or shortness of breath, it may be a sign of an allergic reaction. A severe reaction to stingray venom can lead to seizures, paralysis, and death. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately and administer CPR if you are trained to do so.
If you’ve read this far, it’s clear you are quite interested in stingrays! Why not find the nearest aquarium where you can see and even handle one yourself? Or maybe save up the big bucks and take that Caribbean vacation you’ve been dreaming of. See them in their natural habitat. (But don’t forget to safely shuffle along!)
The Featured Image
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.