Rare manta ray nursery uncovered in Texas

Federico Mansilla
Junio 20, 2018

Little is known about the juvenile life stage of mantas because baby mantas are virtually absent from almost all manta populations around the world, which makes the discovery is an important one, researchers said. Given how rare it is to spot juvenile rays, Josh Stewart, the lead author of the study, made a decision to find out why it was such a regular occurrence at the Banks.

"This discovery is a major advancement in our understanding of the species and the importance of different habitats throughout their lives", said Joshua Stewart, the marine biologist who discovered the nursery and the lead author of the study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Stewart and his team dug through 25 years of dive log and photo identification data to see if juvenile manta sightings were common in the area.

Indeed, their analysis, detailed in the journal Marine Biology on June 15, revealed that baby mantas make up about 95 percent of all the mantas swimming at the Flower Garden Banks. Stewart's team confirmed the area as a nursery by comparing the young mantas' use of the Flower Garden Banks habitat to known indicators of shark and ray nurseries. It is located about 100 miles south of Texas.

"This is exciting news for the manta rays in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico", sanctuary superintendent George P. Schmahl said in the release. These coral communities have grown on top of hard substrate thrust out of the seafloor by the development of salt domes. The researchers suspect that the juvenile mantas are spending time at the relatively shallow banks to recover body temperature after accessing deep, cold waters off the continental slope. Catching sun at the water's surface could be too risky, as several large shark species dwell in the Gulf.

This means that their young are very valuable indeed, so it stands to reason that they'd be sequestered somewhere safe while the rest of the squadron swims the open seas. To confirm this, researchers at the sanctuary plan to begin tagging juvenile mantas at the banks to track their movements and diving behavior.

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Discovery of the manta ray nursery underscores the importance of marine protected areas for conservation efforts. In the case of the giant manta rays, they have already been listed as threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act 2018.

Female manta at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

"Nowhere else in the world has a manta ray nursery area been recognized - which heightens the importance of the sanctuary for these pelagic species", Schmahl highlighted. He was originally visiting the Flower Garden Banks to collect tissue samples from mantas to determine if the population found there is genetically related to other populations found in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

The mystery of where manta rays keep their babies has started to unravel, with the lucky discovery of a rarely seen manta ray nursery. Long-term monitoring data collection from 2010-2017 was funded through an interagency agreement between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and NOAA's National Ocean Service, ONMS through Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

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