Tropical to temperate latitudes in the western Atlantic Ocean
Coastal; live over soft bottoms
Near Threatened With Extinction
Order Myliobatiformes (stingrays and relatives), Family Myliobatidae (eagle rays)
Named for the shape of its head, which when observed from above resembles a cow’s nose, the cownose ray is a moderately sized ray native to the western Atlantic Ocean. cownose rays, like all eagle rays, are active swimmers and do not lie motionless on the seafloor, like the closely related whiptail stingrays (e.g., southern stingray).
Cownose rays are foraging predators and specialize on hard-shelled, invertebrate prey, such as clams and scallops. In order to break open the shells of their preferred prey, cownose rays have strong jaws and thick, crushing tooth plates. In some areas, experts hypothesize that large populations of cownose rays have contributed to the decimation of local shellfish populations, threatening fisheries that target those species.
Adult cownose rays reach widths of approximately three feet (~1 m) and have few natural predators, though some large coastal sharks are known to attack and eat this species. They occasionally congregate in shallow bays, to feed or mate. Cownose rays reproduce via internal fertilization and give live birth. However, they do not connect to their young through a placenta, like in most mammals. Instead, embryos live off of energy obtained from yolk sacs, and only after the juveniles are able to survive on their own does the mother give birth to her young. Nearly always, each female only produces one pup at a time.
Though cownose rays are not targeted in commercial fisheries, they are often captured accidentally in fisheries targeting other species, and some people have suggested a possible future fishery for this moderately common ray. Cownose rays are calm, graceful swimmers and are often featured in public engagement exhibits – such as touch tanks – in aquariums throughout their range. Experts consider this species ‘near threatened’ with extinction.