Everything To Know About Stingrays In The Florida Keys

Stingrays are some of the most mystical creatures in the sea and they thrive in the waters of the Florida Keys. At the Key West Aquarium Stingray Bay exhibit, guests can get up close and personal with the cow nose ray variety of stingrays by petting them. That’s right! These sometimes feared creatures are safe to touch. While stingrays have venomous spines at the end of their tails for self-defense, these barbs have been safely removed from the cow nose rays at the aquarium.

For those of you that want to learn more about stingrays in the wild, here is a guide for everything you should know about stingrays in the Florida Keys.

Stingrays are misunderstood
Maybe it’s because they have the word “sting” in their name. Or maybe it’s because of the untimely death of the Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, who approached an eight-foot wide stingray in shallow water and was lashed out at in self-defense. The reality is, stingrays are docile creatures who don’t go after humans aggressively. If you happen to come across a stingray at the reef in Key West, you should have no problem keeping a safe distance and admiring the creature from afar.

They’re bottom dwellers
One of the reasons seeing a stingray at the reef shouldn’t be scary is because they’re typically on the seafloor while you’re floating at the surface. These animals burrow under the sand, leaving only their eyes and tails visible while feeding on mollusks, crustaceans and sometimes small fish.

Stingrays are related to sharks.
Both are cartilaginous fish and hunt for prey using their sense of smell and electroreceptors, rather than eyesight. Ironically, sharks are also the main predator to stingrays.

Stingrays vary in size
The cow nose rays at the Key West Aquarium grow to be about 35 inches (about three feet), while manta rays can grow to a width of 23-feet. Can you imagine?

Spotted eagle rays will jump above the water’s surface
This is a pretty incredible sight to see. These rays perform dips or jumps while swimming through the water. Sometimes it’s just a single jump and other times, they’ll jump repeatedly.

There are eight families of stingrays. In the Florida Keys, it’s common to see these types:

Southern Stingray
Southern stingrays have large, flat, diamond-shaped disks without distinct heads. Their dark-brown upper bodies and white or whitish underbellies are ideal camouflage for animals that spend their days well buried in sand. From above, only their eyes and huge spiracles are visible. Although southern stingrays aren’t aggressive, they have venomous spines with serrated barbs on the bases of their tails. The spines are only used for defense, but if threatened or stepped on, a ray raises its tail overhead, scorpion style, and drives its spine into the intruder. For humans, the pain is intense, and the jagged wound takes time to heal.



Cownose Stingray
Cownose rays have a unique feature—long, pointed pectoral fins that separate into two lobes in front of their high-domed heads. A crease in the lobes and a notched head create a cow-nose likeness that gives these rays their name. Cownose rays use their flexible fin lobes to probe the seafloor for prey, like clams. After detecting buried prey, they dig deep depressions in the sand by flapping their pectoral fins and, at the same time, sucking sand through their mouths and out their gill slits. As they forage, large schools of rays can stir up huge clouds of silt over a large area. The rays have large, flat tooth plates on both jaws that they use to crush hard-shelled prey. The rays spit out crushed shells and eat the soft body parts. Cownose rays have poisonous stingers, but even in large groups they’re shy and not threatening.




Yellow Spotted Stingray
They inhabit shallow inshore waters, where they are typically found foraging in sandy or muddy flats near coral reefs or rocky formations. They utilize sandy flats and areas of sea grass in order to forage for small crustaceans and mollusks, while also using the deep sand and sea grass for protection from larger predatory fish species. Yellow stingray are able to adjust their colors and patterns very rapidly to match their current surroundings, which helps them blend into their environment to avoid predators and trick prey. This species is Venomous, and should be handled accordingly as these animals have an extremely painful sting. If you do get stung immediately soak it in hot water and call a doctor.