A Guide to the Different Types of Rays in Hawaii

Mar 4, 2024 | Marine Life in Hawaii

Rays, also known as batoids, belong to a huge family of fish with skeletons made of cartilage instead of bone. They are close relatives of sharks.

With more than 600 different types of rays swimming in our oceans, they make up one of the largest groups of cartilage-based marine creatures.

According to fossil records, they have been around since the days of the dinosaurs; this means they’ve existed for over 150 million years!

Rays can be tricky to distinguish because there are so many kinds. This article will help you understand the most common types of rays, making it easier to spot the differences.

Manta Rays: Reef Manta & Giant Manta

Order: Myliobatiformes
Family: Mobulidae

With their massive diamond-shaped bodies and long, wing-like side fins, manta rays gracefully glide through the vast oceans. Their gill slits are on the bottom, their eyes are on the sides, and they have a wide mouth at the front with cephalic fins. Learn all about the intriguing anatomy of a manta ray here.

The species is distinguished into two types: the reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi), and the giant manta ray (Mobula birostris) aka pelagic manta. The two types of rays look very similar, but there is a way to tell a difference.

Pelagic mantas are larger, and they have a darker black-grayish topside with more dark on their underside and the cephalic fins. A reef manta has more white around the cephalic fins, eyes, and ventral side. Find out more differences between the reef and the pelagic manta in this article!

Reef mantas can grow up to 14 feet (over 4 meters) and are found among coral reefs in temperate to tropical waters worldwide. They are known to stay within a certain radius of the shore, and it is not strange to spot the same manta multiple times. There’s still much to discover about reef mantas, but we’ve compiled all we’ve learned about them here.

Pelagic manta rays are the largest rays and can grow to 22 feet (over 7 meters). Since their regular habitat is the vast open ocean, individual giant mantas are not spotted often, sometimes only once in their lifetime. There’s still a lot of mystery surrounding the giant manta rays!

Manta rays filter-feed on plankton with a complex system of branchial filters, and they use intricate patterns and techniques to “catch” more food while gliding through the ocean.

Despite their huge size, manta rays are gentle giants. They don’t have stingers, teeth, or barbs; their only defense mechanism is to swim away, meaning they are completely harmless to humans. While this could be a life lesson for humans on handling conflict resolution, sadly, humans are the biggest threat to mantas – they have almost no natural predators.

One of the most fascinating things about manta rays is the fact that they never stop swimming: they stay in constant motion. They glide through the ocean for their entire lifespan, which ranges from 40 to 80 years, fueled by the need to push water over their gills to breathe.

A giant manta ray to illustrate manta rays in the article types of rays

Giant Manta Ray

Devil Ray (Mobula Ray)

Order: Myliobatiformes
Family: Mobulidae

Devil rays and mantas look quite similar with their diamond-shaped bodies and cephalic fins, leading to confusion between them.

The name “devil ray” is sometimes also used for manta rays. Back in the day, when ancient mariners saw mantas (reef or pelagic), they did not know that they were harmless creatures. On the contrary, the rolled-up cephalic fins gave rise to the myth that terrifying devilfish would drag boats into the ocean depths, hence the nickname “devil ray.”

You can distinguish devil rays from mantas because the cephalic horn (that’s what we call it when rays roll up their cephalic fins) of a devil ray is much pointier than that of the reef and pelagic manta rays.

They are the “smallest” of the species, usually measuring up to 10 feet (3 meters).

Found in tropical and warm temperate seas worldwide, devil rays have small mouths on the underside of their bodies. Like manta rays, they are filter feeders, using gill rakers to extract plankton from the water.

Their name might sound scary, but just like mantas, Mobula rays are completely harmless.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of a “flying ray,” it’s likely a Mobula ray, known for its “breaching” behavior where it jumps out of the water and seems to fly for several moments. Reef mantas do this as well, but it’s rare. Although there are many theories about why mobulas and mantas jump out of the water, the true reasons behind these jumps remain a mystery.

A Mobula ray jumping out the water, to ilustrate the article "different types of rays"

Spotted Eagle Ray

Order: Myliobatiformes
Family: Aetobatidae

The Spotted Eagle Ray (Aetobatus narinari) is the most well-known member of the Eagle Ray family.

It is the easiest ray to identify: it has a spotted pattern across the top side of the body. The spots are unique to each ray, much like fingerprints in humans. They have large, wing-like pectoral fins that enable graceful swimming in open waters.

With a wingspan of 6-8 feet or 2-3m, spotted eagle rays are usually found in shallow coastal waters and warm and temperate oceans worldwide, where they feed on small fish and crustaceans. They find their food by digging with their snout through the sandy rubble.

Spotted eagle rays have barbed stingers behind the pelvic fins, located by the tail. However, these guys pose no danger as they are really shy and get spooked easily.

A photo of a Spotted Eagle Ray, to ilustrate the article "Types of Rays"

Stingray

Order: Myliobatiformes

Stingrays became famous for a very unfortunate reason when Steve Irwin, an Australian zookeeper, conservationist, and risktaker, was killed by one of them while filming underwater in the Great Barrier Reef.

Their broad, flat, diamond-shaped body allows them to blend seamlessly with the ocean floor, where they often bury themselves in sand for camouflage. Their eyes are situated on top of their bodies, while their mouth, nostrils, and gill slits are located underneath.

Many people have asked us if rays can smile. Well, sting rays sort of… When spotted from below, they’re often caught “smiling,” or so it seems. But it’s not a real smile, just how their nostrils (not eyes) and mouth are shaped.

Sting rays can grow up to 6 feet (2m) and are commonly found in warm temperate and tropical waters. They live at a depth of more than 50 feet (deeper than 17 meters), in Hawaiian waters below 100 feet.

Their diet consists of both invertebrates and bony fish. Some species generate a suction force from their mouth that pulls the prey beneath.

A stingray has a stinger located on its top side by the tail. It only uses it when it feels threatened, which most often occurs when someone has stepped on it.

There are over 100 different stingray species; the most well-known are:

  • Bluespotted Ribbontail Ray: easily identified by its bright blue spots on a yellowish background. They can be found throughout the tropical Indian and western Pacific Oceans near the shores.
  • Southern Stingray: Its body is more angular than other types of rays. They are found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Western Atlantic, including the Caribbean.
  • Round Stingray: It’s small, with a round body and a preference for sandy or muddy bottoms near shorelines. Common in the coastal waters of the eastern Pacific.

Hawaii has its own species of stingray: the Hawaiian stingray. They can grow to a wingspan of 3 feet (1m) and are the masters of camouflage.

If you come to Hawaii, you have a good chance of seeing manta rays, spotted eagle rays, and sometimes even a stingray – although the latter is quite rare. Here’s how to easily spot the differences between these three types of rays.

Most people often mistake stingrays for manta rays, but they differ in many aspects. This page clarifies any confusion.

A Photo of a stingray to illustrate the article Types of ray

Electric Ray

Order: Torpediniformes

Electric rays are a group of rays known for their ability to produce electric shocks. Yes, you read that right! They are equipped with two special organs located on their heads that work like a battery generating and storing electricity, which they use for defense and to stun prey.

Depending on the species, they can generate electric voltages ranging from a few volts to up to 220 volts.

Electric rays have a rounded body shape, often with a nearly circular or oval pectoral disc, and their tails are relatively short compared to other types of rays.

They are found on sandy or muddy sea floors in both shallow coastal waters and deep in the ocean, up to depths of 1,000 meters.

These rays are lazy swimmers, moving slowly using their tails instead of flapping their front fins like other types of rays. They feed on invertebrates and small fish using their electric shock to immobilize the prey before consuming it and usually hide under sand or the sea floor.

Electric rays tend to avoid interaction. Most incidents involving electric rays happen by accident, often when a swimmer inadvertently steps on a ray buried in the sand. While the shock from an electric ray can be painful, it is rarely life-threatening to humans.

A photo of an electric ray, a well known type of ray

Butterfly Ray

Order: Myliobatiformes.
Family: Gymnuridae

Butterfly rays are characterized by their broad, flat, and rounded pectoral fins extending from their heads, resembling a butterfly’s wings. They have short tails without a spine.

They can vary in size. Some species are relatively small, while others, like the giant butterfly ray, can reach widths of up to 13 feet (about 4 meters).

These rays are typically found in warm temperate and tropical waters around the world, often in shallow coastal areas, sandy bottoms, and sometimes near coral reefs.

Their food is a variety of prey, including crustaceans, mollusks, and small fish. Their flattened bodies often stir up the sand and uncover hidden prey.

They cannot sting humans because they have no spine on the tail.

A picture of a butterfly ray, to illustrate the article "Types of Rays"

More to Explore…

Hawaii is a truly unique place – about a third of all marine life around our archipelago is endemic, which means it cannot be found in the wild elsewhere.

Learn more about marine life around Hawaii and meet monk seals, humpback whales, tiger sharks, and more on this page!

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT MANTA RAYS?

Learn everything you ever wanted to know about the gentle giants of the ocean.

Download the free ebook, Manta Ray Facts & Figures, below!

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