All About Stingrays: The Venomous Flat Sharks 

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

Scientific nameMyliobatoideiWeight14 to 32 kilograms (31–70 pounds)
PronunciationSTING-ray.Length12 inches to 6.5 feet (0.3 meters to 2 meters) 
ClassificationChondrichthyes, Batoidea, MyliobatiformesLocationWorldwide

The Stingray

The Stingray | aon168 via iStock

Although they look remarkably different, rays are actually relatives of sharks. 

They’re cartilaginous fishes with extremely flattened bodies and enlarged wing-like pectoral fins. 

There are more than 600 species of these majestic creatures found in various habitats worldwide. 

Stingrays are among the most popular types of rays. 

They are known for their extremely long tails armed with serrated edges and sharp points. 

Stingrays use this tail for self-defense. 

Many species also produce venom, which can be fatal to humans

Stingrays live in shallow coastal waters of tropical, subtropical, and temperate seas all over the world, as well as some freshwater systems. 

While they’re more famous for their defensive system, stingrays are adept hunters with super senses. 

They feed on crustaceans, fish, snails, shrimp, and other small creatures in their aquatic environment, which makes them an important species within their ecosystem. 

In this article, we’ll explore all the fascinating facts about stingrays, including their habitat, diet, unique adaptations, and conservation status. 

Gage Beasley’s Stingray Plush Toy

Taxonomy and Classification

Reticulate whipray or honeycomb stingray (Himantura uarnak) in Red Sea | cinoby via iStock

The stingray is a type of ray, meaning it belongs to the Batoidea superorder of the cartilaginous fishes. 

They’re distantly related to sharks and skates.

These cartilaginous fishes (Class Chondrichthyes) differ from the bony fishes by their possession of a cartilage-based skeletal system instead of a bony one. 

Stingrays are a distinct group within the ray order. 

They are collectively referred to as Myliobatoids. 

The Myliobatoidei suborder contains more than 220 stingray species organized into 29 genera.

Rays are an ancient lineage of cartilaginous fishes. 

They diverged from the same common ancestor as the sharks during the Jurassic Period, between 252 and 200 million years ago. 

Stingrays evolved about 60 million years ago. 

As rays evolved, they developed flatter and wider body, which was better suited for catching prey on the sea bottom where they lived. 

This new body plan favored new mechanisms for swimming that allowed their tail fins to become vestigial.

Over time, their tails became highly modified and were adapted into sharp barbs useful for self-defense in the myliobatoids.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Physical Characteristics

Close-up view of a stingray | IVANVIEITO via iStock

Like other types of rays, stingrays are known for their extremely wide bodies.  

Their body is flattened from top to bottom, which gives them a disk-like appearance. 

The general shape of their body varies from one species to the other. 

While some species have a wide butterfly-shaped body with bird-like wings, others have a more rounded disc-like profile. 

Generally, their flattened bodies consist of wide pectoral fins connected to their head while their infamous tail trails behind them. 

All stingrays have their eyes on the top of their bodies while the mouth and gill slits are on the underside. 

The jaws project outwards, and they have large and flat teeth modified for crushing hard-shelled prey. 

Stingrays come in a variety of sizes, depending on the species. 

Some are relatively small, with wingspans of around 12 inches, while others can grow much larger, exceeding 6.5 feet or more.

Giant oceanic manta ray
Giant oceanic manta ray | jon hanson via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

The giant oceanic manta ray is the largest stingray and also the largest ray in the world. 

It can grow to a maximum length of up to nine meters (30 feet), with a disc size of about seven meters (23 feet) across. 

The teacup stingray is the smallest type of stingray, with a diameter of about 12 to 15 inches. 

Stingrays are known for their long whip-like tails. 

In some of the largest species, the tail can grow to a length of up to one foot (30.5 centimeters). 

Their tails may be as long as the rest of their body (the disc) or even longer in many species. 

Most species of stingrays have one or more long spines in their tails. 

The spine typically has sharp, jagged edges and a pointy end. 

The body of a stingray is covered in tough, rough skin, which is often brown or grayish.

Some species have colorful patterns characterized by spots of different sizes against a black, gray, or brown background.

Habitat and Distribution

Two stingrays in the water close to the beach | LisaStrachan via iStock

The stingray order is a large one, with several species found in a wide range of habitats.

They are highly adaptable creatures found in a wide range of climatic conditions.

Most species of stingrays live in coastal tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. 

However, some species live in warmer temperate oceans. 

Their distribution in the world’s oceans spans a wide range of temperatures and water salinities. 

Some stingray species are also found in freshwater systems. 

Some of the most notable freshwater species are the whiptail stingrays, Niger stingrays, giant freshwater stingrays, and the ocellate river stingrays. 

Most of the ocean-dwelling stingray species are found in the shallow marine environment. 

They’re typically found in the demersal zone, which is the lowest zone of the water column. 

They’re bottom-dwellers, and many of them spend significant time buried in the sandy or muddy seabeds. 

They also live around seagrass beds, coral reefs, and rocky substrate areas.

However, some stingray species, like the eagle rays and pelagic stingrays, inhabit the open ocean. 

A few stingrays may also be found in deep oceanic environments. 

The aptly named deepwater stingray is an example of this. 

It has been found at depths of up to 680 meters (2,230 feet).

Behavior and Social Structure

Stingray fishes swimming free in the clear near-shore environment | EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER via iStock

Most stingray species spend their time in shallow, near-shore environments where they stay partially buried on the ocean floor. 

This allows them to stay hidden from predators and prey on unsuspecting fish and other sea creatures as they swim by. 

When they do move, most stingray species swim by undulating their entire body like a wave. 

Other species flap their pectoral fins, using them like the wings of birds. 

Their tail may also be used for swimming to a limited extent. 

Stingrays are not known to be territorial animals. 

They generally move throughout their habitats, and their distribution may follow the availability of prey.

Migration patterns vary for the different stingray species. 

While some species don’t migrate at all, some, like the manta rays, undertake long-distance migrations in response to shifting weather conditions or in search of suitable breeding grounds. 

They are generally solitary animals, but some species may form large aggregations in specific locations for feeding and breeding.

However, even the more gregarious species do not exhibit complex social structures or hierarchies, and their social interactions are limited. 

Stingrays are typically more active during the day, especially during dawn and dusk when they feed. 

At night, they may rest on the seafloor or within crevices and caves to avoid predation.

Diet and Feeding

A stingray waiting for food | Eloi_Omella via iStock

Stingrays are primarily carnivorous. 

They eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, marine worms, and other invertebrates that live close to the ocean floor. 

However, the exact diet and hunting adaptations of the stingrays vary from one species to the other. 

Most species of stingrays are suction feeders. 

They use their powerful mouths and jaws located on the underside of their body to create a vacuum which they use to suck prey items into their mouths. 

Bottom-dwelling stingray species are particularly efficient at finding prey buried under the sediment.

Their eyes are positioned on the dorsal side of their body, which means they’re not very useful for hunting prey.

However, like sharks and other cartilaginous fish species, stingrays have electric sensors on their body known as the ampullae of Lorenzini. 

These sensors are concentrated around the stingrays’ mouths, and they help them sense weak electrical signals produced by prey, even when the animal is buried under bottom sediments. 

Some ray species can also stir the water with their wide pectoral fin or dig into the substrate with their jaws to expose prey. 

A stingray’s protruding mouth | bthompso2001 via iStock

The wide, protruding mouth of the stingray may contain between 32 and 60 tooth rows. 

The number of teeth increases as the ray ages, and they’re replaced consistently too. 

The teeth are small, with a blunt cusp. 

They’re adapted to crushing the shells of mollusks and other hard-bodied prey. 

Adult male stingrays have sharp backward-pointing teeth at the center of their jaws. 

Some species, like the deepwater stingray, may also hunt prey well above the sea floor. 

Not all stingrays are active hunters. 

A few species, like the manta rays, are filter-feeders.

Their diet mainly consists of plankton and small fish. 

They catch these tiny organisms by swimming with their large mouths open, using specialized gill rakers to filter out food from the large amount of water that they swallow. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Two stingrays mating | RugliG via iStock

During the breeding season, male stingrays start seeking out mates using their ampullae of Lorenzini to detect electrical signals given off by receptive females. 

When they find a suitable mate, they may exhibit a wide range of mating behavior depending on the species. 

In some species, the male chases the female for a while before biting into her pectoral disc and inserting one of his claspers into her valve. 

Some stingrays have even more elaborate mating behavior. 

The Atlantic stingray, for instance, forms large aggregations during the mating season. 

Then, they form pairs that continue to mate for up to seven months (the longest in any ray, shark, or skate). 

After successful fertilization, stingrays carry their embryo internally instead of laying eggs. 

They are ovoviviparous, which means they give birth to live young that are nourished with yolk sacs within the mother’s body. 

When the yolk sac is depleted, the mother produces uterine milk, which nourishes the litter until their birth.

Stingrays give birth to about five to 13 offspring at once. 

The gestation period varies slightly for the different species. 

For the common stingray, the gestation period is typically about four months, but it can be up to 12 months in some species. 

Yep! I am strong and independent | Katherine OBrien via iStock

Most species of stingrays don’t exhibit parental care. 

The young are born almost fully independent and can protect and feed themselves almost immediately after birth. 

However, a few species, like the giant freshwater stingray, care for their young. 

The juveniles may swim alongside the mother until she’s about one-third of the adult size. 

The typical lifespan of a stingray is between five and 25 years, depending on the species. 

There have been at least two instances of stingrays giving birth despite having no contact with males for up to two years. 

This suggests that female stingrays can store sperm in their body for a long time, delaying fertilization and implantation until conditions are more suitable. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

A stingray burying itself to catch a prey on the ocean floor | ifish via iStock

Most stingrays are bottom-dwelling predators. 

They prey mainly on benthic organisms and play a vital role in regulating the population of these prey species. 

Their role as benthic predators contributes to the overall balance of the shallow marine ecosystems where they live. 

It’s important to note that the diet and feeding behaviors of stingrays vary significantly for different species. 

The manta rays, for instance, are filter feeders. 

They prey on plankton and other small organisms, contributing to the transfer of energy from the lowest to the highest trophic levels. 

Some stingrays, especially those that feed on organisms buried in the substrate, engage in bioturbation. 

This is the disturbance and mixing of bottom sediment or sand. 

This activity helps oxygenate sediments and releases nutrients from the seafloor, promoting the growth of microorganisms and other species in the area.

Although stingrays are predators, they’re also prey for larger animals within their ecosystem, such as sharks and other species of large fish. 

Their exact position as prey depends on their size and habitats. 

Conservation Status and Threats

A group of stingrays migrating | Grilleau Nicolas via iStock

The population of stingrays is generally on a decline. 

Currently, most species assessed on the IUCN Red List are either endangered, threatened, or near threatened. 

Some species are also listed as data-deficient, which means there isn’t sufficient data at present to determine their conservation status. 

Destruction and degradation of the critical habitats of the stingrays are one of the major factors responsible for their decline. 

They live in coral reefs, seagrass, estuaries, and other shallow oceanic environments. 

These areas are close to coastal development and are commonly affected by pollution and destructive fishing practices. 

Some species of stingrays are also targeted specifically by the commercial fishing industries. 

Fishing boats in Asia target stingray species with gill rakers, which are commonly used in local Chinese medicines. 

Some species are also targeted for their meat. 

Even in places where they’re not targeted by commercial fisheries, stingrays may get caught as a bycatch in commercial fisheries targeting other species. 

The establishment of marine protected areas, especially in shallow marine environments where critical species of stingrays live, may help protect their population. 

Limiting fishing, coastal development, and other activities that may harm stingray populations will help their populations rebound over the next few decades. 

Governments may also need to implement stricter rules to reduce bycatch and overfishing of stingray species. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Oh! Here are my gills | Antagain via iStock

Stingrays mainly breathe with their gills. 

However, because these gills are located on the underside of their body, they’re not very useful for gas exchange when the gill ray is hunting or burying itself in the bottom sediment. 

To continue breathing during such conditions, stingrays rely on their spiracles, which are openings located just behind their eyes. 

The spiracle takes in water from above and passes it directly to the rays’ gills for gas exchange. 

The flattened body shape of the stingray is one of their most unique adaptations. 

Unlike other fish species with a torpedo-shaped body, stingrays have a wide pectoral disc. 

This wing-like structure allows them to glide across the seafloor while minimizing water resistance.

It also provides a wider surface area for their sensory organ, which they use to detect prey on the sea bottom. 

A Caribbean stingray camouflaging itself on the ocean floors | Hailey Seelig via iStock

Many stingray species exhibit excellent camouflage. 

Their dorsal (upper) side often features mottled or speckled patterns that blend in with the rest of the seafloor, tricking predators and prey effectively.

Stingrays are also known for their venomous stinger. 

This is a long spine located at the base of the tail. 

Stingrays may have one or three spines like this that can be used for self-defense when threatened. 

The serrated barbs on the stinger can inflict painful injuries on potential predators or threats.

Although the venom is extremely painful and can cause swelling or muscle cramps, stingray injuries are rarely fatal. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Stingray in an aquarium | NRedmond via iStock

Stingrays are popular creatures known to various cultures worldwide. 

In some indigenous cultures, they’re seen as spiritual animals with special qualities and may be featured in myths and stories. 

In the past, many primitive cultures fashioned the spine of stingrays into weapons. 

The spines are believed to contain venom that can still be deadly even after the ray has died.

In Greek mythology, for instance, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, was killed by his son with a spear fashioned out of a stingray’s spine. 

Despite their venom, rays are actually edible. 

Some coastal areas also have recipes that include stingrays as a major ingredient. 

Despite their reputation as dangerous sea animals, stingrays are actually quite docile. 

So far, there have only been two fatalities involving stingrays. 

One of them was the death of the famous naturalist Steve Irwin in 2006. 

The impressive appearance and docile nature of stingrays make them quite popular in aquariums and sea world exhibitions all over the world. 

Future Prospects and Research

A scientist studying the behavior of a stingray | Global_Pics via iStock

Despite their popularity, the stingray’s venom has not been properly studied. 

The venom is often mixed with mucous membrane cells and tissue cells, which makes it difficult to study. 

Future research may tell us more about the composition and mechanism of action of this venom. 

We may also be able to find other uses for this venom, like that of other venomous animals. 

Most research in recent years has focused on the conservation of the species. 

Scientists are actively trying to gain a better understanding of stingray species and monitor their distribution. 

Some conservation organizations currently have breeding programs for certain stingray species, like the blue-spotted ribbontail ray.

Efforts like this will aid in the conservation and possible rejuvenation of the different species of stingrays that are currently at risk of extinction. 


Stingrays are a group of cartilaginous fish found in both marine and freshwater systems all over the world. 

There are several species of stingrays, and they exhibit a wide range of feeding habits and other behavior. 

They’re carnivorous bottom feeders, and their feeding activities contribute to the overall health of the benthic habitats. 

A few species also live in the open sea and deep water ecosystems. 

Despite their notorious reputation as venomous creatures, stingrays are quite docile. 

They only attack when threatened, and their sting is rarely fatal, although extremely painful.  

Human activity is currently driving many species of stingrays to extinction. 

Considering their role as important top predators of the benthic and shallow marine ecosystem, more needs to be done to protect stingrays and keep them from going extinct in the near future.


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