Rio History: Stingrays and Giant Mantas of the Gulf of Mexico


Special to the PRESS

Yes, there are stingrays along the beaches of Padre Island …and yes, people do get stuck by them.  Stingrays are actually a specialized branch-off of early sharks. They will eat almost anything they can catch, including clams, crabs and shrimp. The females are the largest, sometimes measuring six feet wide when fully mature. They are generally docile sea animals often found lying on the bottom in shallow water where they blend extremely well with their surroundings. And this is where they are most dangerous to fishermen and swimmer for they can be easily provoked if accidentally stepped on.  Serrated spines and a poison gland, located near the base of the tail, can inflict a painful wound. The venom is a fairly potent nerve toxin that affects the heart and there are recorded cases of victims suffering a heart attack when stung in the chest area. According to the official autopsy, naturalist Steve Irwin’s death was caused by the trauma of the barb piercing his heart and he probably died before experiencing any effect of the ray’s poisonous venom. Does this mean all ray victims will die? No. In fact most people recover with few or any side effects.

Because stingray venom consists of a large protein, it is easily broken down by heat. Immerse the affected area in hot, but not scalding, water for thirty to ninety minutes. Then, clean the area with soapy water, being careful to remove any broken bits of stingray spine that may be left in the wound. It is best to leave the area uncovered unless there is profuse bleeding present. In that case, use ordinary first aide precautions and seek medical advice immediately, as infection and shock can set in rather quickly. It is a good idea to do some considerable splashing around when entering water where they (stingrays) are most likely to be found. Local fishermen have learned to do the “Padre Shuffle”. That is, they sort’ a glide their feet on the sandy bottom as they move along. This way they avoid stepping directly on a stingray or its tail.”

The Atlantic manta rays, or the Manta birostris, are easily recognized in the ocean by their large pectoral “wings”. They have two lobes extending from the front of the head and possess a broad, rectangular, mouth. Their only teeth are on the lower jaw. They have gills on the underside of the body and a short, whip-like tail that, unlike many rays, has no sharp barb. Hence, they are not considered dangerous to humans.

They are big; sometimes weighing in excess of five thousand pounds and reaching a length of twenty-two feet with a wingspan of twenty-four feet. They certainly can be intimidating at first sight but are truly a gentle and shy creature that little is actually known about. Manta rays are filter feeders. They slowly swim in vertical loops. This is done to keep the ray’s prey within the area while feeding. Their large, gaping mouths and cephalic lobes unfurled are used to corral crustaceans and small schooling fish.

Mantas filter water through their gills where organisms are trapped by a filtering device. This portion of their interesting anatomy consists of plates of pinkish-brown-tissue that span between the support structures of the gills.

Oddly, the teeth are nonfunctional during feeding. Though they are getting harder to find in the Laguna Madre today, that has not always been the case.

As little as fifty years ago, the best time to view the local giant mantas was when the spring thaw, high in the Rockies, would flood the Rio Grande River. The muddy floodwaters flowed several miles out into the Gulf. The mantas would hover where the freshwater ended and the clear salt water began, waiting for the freshwater fish. The fishermen would throw a harpoon into the body of the manta. Then, a barbed hook would be attached to two or three barrels. The giant fish would run like this for hours, pulling the barrels through the waters until finally, exhausted, the fish would be shot in the head or in some other way, relieved of his torment.

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  1. […] this mean all ray victims will die? No. In fact most people recover with few or any side effects. Read the rest here […]

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