Why do Manta Rays Twirl when they’re Eating?

by | Mar 29, 2021 | About Manta Rays

Manta rays don’t stop swimming while they feed – instead, they twirl, roll and twist. Why do they do that? And what does that have to do with airplane engineering?

That’s what we explore in the video below – or scroll down to read all about it!




The Diet of a Manta Ray: Plankton

Manta rays feed on plankton, which is a bit like an alphabet soup of small and microscopic organisms of various kinds and species.

Here in Hawaii, we use bright lights to attract nearby plankton at night. Manta rays are intelligent animals, and the local mantas have come to realize the connection between light and food sources. That way, we have been attracting them to three established viewing sites around the Big Island of Hawaii for many years.

However, they don’t just feed at night; manta rays are also seen during the daytime when the current brings in lots of food… even if there are no big bright lights to attract the plankton.

How Mantas Eat: Filter Feeding

Contrary to stingrays and eagle rays, mantas are filter feeders. They’ve got a big mouth, situated at the front of the body, to collect as much food as possible while they’re swimming.

If you get the chance to take a closer look at a manta ray feeding, you will see the “gill rakers” inside its’ mouth. Mantas use a complex filtration system to separate and swallow the plankton and expel the water on the underside of the body through the gill slits.

Underwater Photo of a manta ray filter-feeding
A manta ray filter-feeding

So Why Do Manta Rays Twirl and Twist when they’re Eating?

The answer to that question may be much simpler than you thought: manta rays look like they twirl and twist when they feed because they need to keep moving forward to collect plankton. It wouldn’t come swimming straight into their mouths if they stayed perfectly still; besides, manta rays need to keep swimming in order to keep breathing.

The twirling motion they make is just the most ergonomic way for them to keep swimming while staying in the area where the plankton is.

The most amazing thing? Their twirling technique is so efficient and interesting, it’s captivated engineers for centuries.

How Airplanes Use Manta Ray Twirling Techniques

There are two different twirling motions manta rays make when they eat. Interestingly, they can be compared to maneuvers airplanes make in the sky:

1- Loop-to-loop twirling

A loop to loop is best defined as a complete 360-degree circle. It commonly means “doing the same movement twice”. An airplane can loop to loop in the sky when it turns it in a vertical circle, and can even continue moving forward during the loop.

2- Barrel twirl

A barrel is an acrobatic maneuver in which an aircraft follows a single turn of a spiral while rolling once about its longitudinal axis.

Although they are similar descriptions, the loop to loop means moving around in a circular motion, while a barrel would be considered going into a spiral while consistently facing forward.

Magnified underwater photo of the mouth of a manta ray with labels
The mouth of a manta ray

How Manta Rays Work Together Feeding… and One Thing Leads To Another

Manta rays are really acrobatic; they can keep looping over and over to gain more and more plankton into their mouth.

A fun fact about manta rays is they don’t get dizzy. That’s another reason why twirling is the most effective way to collect food.

Occasionally, mantas will feed in pairs and work together with the loop de loop tactic. As long as there is an abundance of food by the lights, the mantas can be seen on top of each other synchronizing in graceful barrel rolls. To onlookers, it looks like an underwater ballet.

Sometimes, Manta Rays Don’t Twirl…

A little disclaimer before we send you on your way: manta rays don’t always twirl while they’re feeding. They will do whatever’s most efficient to get the most plankton.

If the plankton is already gathered right in front of them, the manta will just push and swim straight forward.

So… Why Do Manta Rays Twirl When They Feed?

Mantas make a twirling motion when they’re collecting plankton as they aim to be as efficient as possible. They keep moving around the same area in order to filter-feed on as much plankton as possible.

Want to know more about all the things that are unique to manta rays, and learn about these gentle giants of the sea? Download the Manta Ray Facts & Figures ebook below:

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