Tropical to temperate latitudes in the western Atlantic Ocean
Coastal; live on soft bottoms
Order Myliobatiformes (stingrays and relatives), Family Dasyatidae (whiptail stingrays)
The southern stingray is a moderately sized whiptail stingray native to the western Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the spotted eagle rays, the southern stingray spends much of its time in contact with the seafloor, often buried in soft sediment with only its large eyes uncovered. The southern stingray’s mouth is on the ventral (bottom) side of its head, and it uses an electric sense to locate a variety of invertebrate and fish prey. Its preferred prey includes many different species of shrimps, crabs, and other crustaceans.
Like all fishes, the southern stingray obtains oxygen from the water using its gills, but its habit of burying its mouth in the sediment provides an obstacle to passing water from its mouth to the gill cavity. This species solves that problem by pumping water through specialized openings – called spiracles – that are located on the top of the head. The spiracles are located just behind the eyes and are easily noticeable in live individuals as well as photographs.
Large, mature southern stingrays have been known to reach sizes of nearly five feet (1.5 m) wide, but the average adult size is smaller. Like in most whiptail stingrays, the southern stingray’s tail is very long, often longer than the body width. This species reproduces via internal fertilization and gives live birth. However, southern stingrays 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 (up to 10 pups per litter). From birth, southern stingrays are able to use a sharp, serrated barb – attached at the base of the tail – to defend against predation. If stepped on by a person, the barb can cause severe pain and can lead to a nasty wound, but it is not otherwise dangerous.
The primary predators of southern stingray adults are hammerhead sharks. Both scalloped hammerheads and Great Hammerheads have been observed using their wide heads to pin stingrays to the seafloor, wildly biting them until they can no longer move. When dissecting large hammerheads, scientists often find numerous (perhaps dozens) of southern stingray spines lodged in their jaws. Juvenile southern stingrays are eaten by other species of sharks as well.
This species is not generally eaten by people, but it is often captured accidentally in bottom trawls and other net fisheries targeting other species. Scientists believe this to be a hardy species, however, and are hopeful that accidentally captured individuals may be released alive and survive their human encounter. The southern stingray is one of the most common species of large, whiptail stingrays found in public aquariums.
Check out KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) for free activities that teach children about the ocean.