It’s a question we’ve heard regularly over the years: “do manta rays smile”?
That question is often caused by a common misconception: the internet is full of pictures and videos of sting rays with big “smiles” on their face. Too many times, these pictures have been mislabeled as “manta” rays.
When you see (or film, or photograph) a sting ray from below, it’s almost always “making a face”. Sometimes the corners of their mouths go up, which we humans interpret as “smiling”… which we associate with happiness.
One case of a stingray “laughing” while it was getting tickled went viral – humans associated the stingray’s reaction with having fun, while the animal was actually suffocating to death.
In the pictures, most people would think we see the sting ray’s face (with eyes and a mouth). But that’s not correct: the black spots are its nostrils, not its eyes. Their eyes are on top of their body.
The mouth of a manta ray is very different from that of a sting ray.
It’s a large cavernous opening in the front of their body, making easy for water and plankton to enter during feeding. Nature created the perfect “entrance” to catch the most amount of plankton.
For a fun size comparison, imagine how three adult heads would fit easily into Big Bertha’s mouth. No kidding! (and don’t try this at home!)
Mantas are sentient animals, just like humans. So the question should be, why wouldn’t they have feelings?
However, we have no idea whether manta rays can genuinely feel sad, for instance, when they lose a mate.
But, we do know that they feel pain when they’re injured, as we’ve witnessed that first-hand on multiple occasions.
The two missions any manta has in life are
- Foraging for plankton
- Making little mantas
The good news is that while mantas feed at the viewing sites, they are not dependent on us; when they don’t show up at the lighted areas (the viewing sites) for months on end, that doesn’t mean they’re not eating – they’re just finding food (and accomplishing their mission) somewhere else.
Another animal that people like to say can smile are dolphins. But it’s definitely not the case: it’s just how their mouth is shaped. And the noise they make is not “laughing” – again, that’s just the noise they make.
Unfortunately, people use the anthropomorphic lens too often and it continues to widen our disconnect from nature.
So, to answer the initial question: “Do manta rays smile?”
The answer is: manta rays don’t smile – they just get confused with their relatives, the sting rays.
And sting rays don’t smile either – just like dolphins, their mouth is just shaped that way.