Jessica Pate is an avid diver and biologist. While out at Juno Beach in Florida, she was riding an ATV and surveying the sand for signs of endangered sea turtle tracks, when something caught her eye. Not far away in the shallow water, there was a giant black mass gliding by.
Pate strained to get a better look, but she was completely blown away to realize it was a huge manta ray. Pate was quite familiar with people who had previously been able to swim with these incredible animals down in Hawaii and Indonesia – but she’d never heard of anything like this happening off South Florida’s coast.
This discovery then led Pate to look into more scientific research that discussed the manta ray population in South Florida, however, all she found was just one paper dated from 1998. And that is when she decided to do something about the lack of science, and from 2016 to 2019, Pate was busy scouring the waters for more manta rays. Her dedication was not in vain, she did ultimately identify 59 individual manta rays, also known as “urban rays” by the researchers.
According to National Geographic, Pate stated, “We have seen manta rays swimming in front of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville resort.” She has even added that since the start of the pandemic with more people staying home, there have been a few more mantra ray sightings being reported by those who live in Miami’s high-rise condos. Besides living in the waters off of a very urban and developed area, there is something else that seems to be a common trait amongst the rays. Pate noticed that all the Florida rays seem to be mainly juveniles, which is believed to be true based on their lack of mating scars on females, as well the males having smaller genitalia, known as claspers.
A new study published in the journal Endangered Species Research found that both Pate and her colleagues believe there is plenty of evidence to point to the waters of South Florida potentially being a manta ray nursery! This would be the third-ever found. Previous research has shown that manta ray nurseries are often areas that are rich in food and somewhat secure from predators – both factors which are essential to giving the baby rays a chance to grown and develop in safety.
Pate, who is also the founder and lead scientist of the Florida Manta Project, emphasized this finding’s significance, saying to National Geographic, “It was amazing because it was an unexpected finding, and the other two nursery grounds were also just identified in 2018 and 2019.”
Additionally, Pate noted that there is still so much that remains unknown about these incredible animals, such as where they actually give birth, how they choose their mates, and what their life spans are. That is why a discovery of this magnitude, like a nursery area, could help to shed some light on these mysterious animals. And not only would it help to better understand them as a species, but it would also help to know how to conserve them.
At present, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists both giant manta ray and the reef manta ray as vulnerable to extinction. And in 2018, the giant manta ray was actually added as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This makes their conservation even more vital.
When rays are little they have predators to contend with, however, when they’re fully grown adults they’re usually too big for most predators, so they should generally have a pretty easy life in the ocean…but humans don’t always make that easy. Human impact has had a huge effect on the number of rays in the wild.
According to the studies done by Pate and her team, 27% of manta rays had been entangled in fishing lines, while 46% showed evidence of injury or scarring from boat propellers, fishing equipment, or other unidentified causes. And since the waters of South Florida are a nursery for these animals, Pate says it’s “really important for the viability of the entire population to protect these juveniles.”
Given their precarious future, Pate is hopeful that her study will help to force the U.S. government to dedicate a critical habitat for the manta rays in the waters off South Florida. As she explained according to National Geographic, “These mantas are living in South Florida with millions of people, so protecting them won’t be easy. But as manta rays around the world are declining, this could be a really important population to safeguard the species.”
Hopefully her work will pay off and help to spearhead the conservation of Florida’s beautiful manta rays. Check out the video below:
Anastasia is an American writer and journalist living in Dublin, Ireland. Her Twitter is @AnastasiaArell5.