Saturday, July 26, 2008

New Manta Ray discovered!

Not even the most inveterate lover of toothy Apex Predators will escape the gentle charm of the beautiful and friendly Manta Ray, the more as it sometimes shares the same habitat as Sharks, like in Cocos, the Galapagos, Socorro and sometimes, even Shark Reef.

Like many of my fellow divers, I've often wondered at their massive range in size and coloration: quite small and lightly colored on the reefs of say, Yap and French Polynesia, much bigger and darker on the west coast of the Americas or in the cold waters around Komodo.
But despite the best efforts of the Taxonomists, even including illegal DNA sampling within Marine Protected Areas, no evidence could be found that the "Giant Pacific Mantas" were anything different than their fairer and smaller cousins. The difference in size and coloration was apparently merely due to environmental factors and nutrition. After all, the reason for the crystal clear azure water on coral reefs is its lack of nutrients which has forced corals to co-operate with algae; whereas in the Americas, the cold and dark Humboldt and California currents carry plenty of nutrients allowing for abundant plankton growth and thus, a much larger size of plankton feeders.
Thus, scientific wisdom had it that all Manta Rays belong to one and the same single circumtropical species of Manta birostris.
Until now it seems.
Now and again, there would be reports of truly whoppingly gigantic individuals, reputedly with wingspans in excess of six meters, and this mainly from coral reef habitats in the Indian Ocean. With the exception of a possible encounter in the Seychelles many many years ago when I was green and impressionable, I never saw such an animal, and this despite of hundreds of sightings - so I quicky started filing those reports under the category of urban legends.

Well, it seems that as so often, I was dead wrong.
It now appears that the behemoth not only exists, but that it even represents a new species!
Keep in mind that discovering such a large marine animal, and this on reefs and at depths teeming with recreational divers is nothing short of miraculous! The last such marine discovery, after the two Coelacanths, was the Megamouth Shark and those animals are found in deep-water and pelagic habitats people like us would never vist.

Here, a massive ray with a wing span of up to 8 meters (!) would have gone unnoticed but for the tireless efforts of University of Queensland's PhD researcher Andrea Marshall and her Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre.
Situated in a small village on the coast of Mozambique, people in the know tell me that it's as remote and lonely as it gets and subject to regular natural catastrophes as floods and cyclones. To persevere in such an environment is a testimony to her dedication and some would say, obsession - but what a wonderful vindication to be able to come up with such spectacular results!
This is like discovering a new species of African Elephant in the middle of Kruger National Park after years of it perambulating in total impunity from detection among thousands of safari tourists.
Truly, a remarkable feat!

Apparently, the new species is much rarer and much bigger than the "usual" Manta and lives a migratory, more pelagic life in contrast to its more resident and reef-bound cousin. Alas, like in the case of the migratory pelagic Sharks, and Fish, it is the object of substantial fishing pressure owing to the difficulties in establishing collaborative and coordinated conservation and management practices in such a large and unregulated environment.

You can watch Andrea talk about her discovery on this webpage of her proud sponsor, the Save our Seas Foundation (Video #1) and you can learn more about her research on her Manta Ray webpage. With a possible third species in the works, the future looks bright indeed!

Paper here!

Be amazed and enjoy!

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