[Blonde Ray © Sally Sharrock.]

Skates and Rays

Skates and rays are closely related to the sharks and share many similar characteristics. They have a skeleton made out of cartilage instead of bone, five pairs of gills and rough skin that feels like sandpaper.

However there are two clear differences that enable us to identify a skate or ray from a shark:

1. Position of gills – the gills of a skate or ray can be found on the underside of their body whereas on a shark they are found either side of the head. Spiracles behind their eyes draw water in, which is them pumped out over their gills.

2. Fins – The pectoral (side) fins of a skate or ray are joined to their body, giving them a wider and flatter body shape to that of the streamlined torpedo shaped shark.

Skate Diagram © Marc Dando.

It can be more difficult to tell a skate from a ray but there are a few small differences. The pelvic (back) fins of a skate are divided into two sections, whereas a ray’s are not, and the tail of a skate tends to be shorter and thicker compared to a ray that has a thinner, whip like tail. Many rays also have a stinging spine so watch out.

Despite these biological differences, many skates and rays in the UK have been misnamed and that name has stuck – for example, the Thornback Ray is called a ray but is actually a skate.

All true skates reproduce by ovoparity. They live a long time and start laying eggs when they reach 5-10 years old. Skates produce 40-150 eggs a year, which is not a lot when you consider that many young will not survive to adulthood, as they are easy prey for predators. Rays instead reproduce by viviparity, giving birth to live young.

There are over 600 different types of skate and ray worldwide and at least 16 of these can be found in UK coastal waters.

➤ Download British skate and ray factsheets.

The fishing industry is currently allowed to catch skates and rays of all sizes, which means that small (younger) fish are being caught before they are old enough to reproduce.

Many species of skate and ray appear on the IUCN Red List, which lists species from around the world that have a high risk of becoming extinct.