This month we're showcasing the largest rays in the world. Made up of 2 different species, these captivating giants are highly intelligent. And, come in a range of unusual colours!

The word ‘manta’ is Spanish for blanket or cloak, which perfectly describes the body-shape of a manta ray. These enormous, flat, diamond-shaped animals, have wingspans stretching up to 7m wide and can weigh up to 1,350kg.

Mantas also have 2 horns at the front of their head, giving them the nickname 'devil fish'. But there’s nothing devilish about these gentle giants. Or their close cousins the devil rays, who often get confused for mantas. Both, use their ‘horns’ (or cephalic fins) during feeding to scoop up tiny plants and animals in the water. Similar to how we use a spoon to eat soup. Their cephalic fins may also play a role in sensing their environment and during social interactions.

Just like the Basking and Whale Shark, manta rays are filter feeders. Swimming with their mouths wide open, they suck in huge volumes of water - rich in zooplankton. Their tiny prey is then filtered through gill plates that line their mouth. Sadly, these gill plates are highly sought after in the Chinese medicinal trade, which has led to mantas being heavily overfished.

As any diver can attest, seeing a manta in the wild is a pure delight. Their elegance and grace in the water is unrivalled. Particularly at feeding time. Mantas need to keep moving to breathe, so individuals will perform multiple somersaults to stay in a single spot where there's lots of food. Like a perfectly orchestrated dance, mantas will also follow each other in a circle to chain-feed. Their movements expertly creating a vortex that traps their prey inside.

Manta Rays live in tropical, subtropical, and temperate waters around the world. They tend to live on their own or in small groups. But will often gather in large groups to feed. Hotspots for this feeding behaviour include the Bahamas, Fiji, Indonesia, Thailand, Spain and the Maldives. And aggregations are known as a squadron of manta ray.

In 2008, scientists discovered that the Manta Ray, which was once thought of as a single species, was in fact two different species. The Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Mobula birostris) and the much smaller Reef Manta Ray (Mobula alfredi). Both species were formerly classified under the separate genus Manta. But following genetic testing in 2017, scientists discovered they were more closely related to devil rays (genus Mobula) than previously thought and reclassified them as such.

The Giant Manta is widespread, spending most of their time far from land in open ocean. While the Reef Manta tends to prefer the warmer coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific. Fully grown, the wingspan of a Giant Manta can reach up to 7m (typically 4.5m). While the largest wingspan for a Reef Manta is 5m (typically 3-3.5m). Both are dark in colour on top with a pattern of white lines. On the Giant Manta the white lines form a T shape, while on the Reef Manta they form a Y shape.

We can also identify each individual manta by their unique markings. Found on the underside of their body (between the gills and on their bellies), these act just like a human fingerprint. Enabling scientists to use photo-ID to discover more about them.

Manta Rays regularly visit cleaning stations, like many other marine animals, often returning to the same spot. Here smaller animals groom them, removing pesty parasites and dead skin. These spa trips to the coral reef provide researchers with the perfect opportunity to photograph and study them in the wild.

In Raja Ampat, researchers have discovered an unusual group of Reef Mantas, affectionately known as the ninja warriors. This area has the highest percentage of melanistic (black) Reef Mantas in the world. Usually melanistic mantas comprise around 10% of a population, but here they represent 40%. This genetic trait is inherited and doesn’t appear to affect their survival rate.

If you visit the Great Barrier Reef, you may witness an even more astounding sight... 

Pink Manta Ray © Kristian Laine Photography

A 3m male Reef Manta named ‘Inspector Clouseau’, who also happens to be bright PINK! Big thanks to Kristian Laine Photography for providing the incredible photo above.

The Inspector is the only known pink manta in the world. His rosy hue is believed to be the result of a condition called erythrism – a genetic mutation in melanin production. Again, this doesn't seem to impact his survival. Indeed, he’s been spotted a handful of times since his first debut in 2015, so is doing well.

Highly intelligent, these majestic animals have the largest brain to body weight ratio of any fish. Studies suggest they have high cognitive function - similar to dolphins, primates and elephants - and excellent long-term memory.

Due to their large size, adult mantas don’t have many natural predators. Although, larger sharks and orca have been known to prey on them. Yet, the biggest threat they face comes from humans. Due to their low reproductive rate mantas are incredibly vulnerable to overfishing.

These long-living animals are thought to live up to 50 years. Giving birth every 4-5 years, they'll only produce between 4-7 pups during their lifetime.


GIANT MANTA RAY:

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mobula birostris

  • FAMILY: Mobulidae (Manta & Devil Rays)

  • MAXIMUM SIZE: 7m

  • DIET: Zooplankton, krill & small fish.

  • DISTRIBUTION: Worldwide in tropical and temperate waters. Found from the surface to depths of 1,000m.

  • HABITAT: Spends long periods of time in the open ocean. Visits shallow coastal waters near coral and rocky reefs.

  • CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered


REEF MANTA RAY:

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mobula alfredi

  • FAMILY: Mobulidae (Manta & Devil Rays)

  • MAXIMUM SIZE: 5m

  • DIET: Zooplankton, krill & small fish.

  • DISTRIBUTION: Tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Found from the surface to depths of 432m.

  • HABITAT: Shallow coastal waters near coral and rocky reefs. Moves into deeper waters at night to feed.

  • CONSERVATION STATUS: Vulnerable


Related Links:

► Check out more incredible sharks and rays covered in our Creature Features

► Discover more fin-tastic facts by visiting our Discover Sharks section