The malevolent stingray

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In recent weeks, we have been shocked by the reports of stingrays attacking humans. First, there was the account of the Australian TV naturalist Steven Irwin, better known as “The Crocodile Hunter,” being fatally stabbed in the heart by a stingray’s harpoon while he was diving. Then, more recently, there was the report of an 81-year-old man from Light House Point, Fla., being stabbed in the chest by the barb of an eagle ray that had jumped into the boat of the man and his granddaughter. The man was hit when he tried to throw the fish overboard. The granddaughter steered their boat to shore, and called 911. At last report, the man was still in critical condition. This sort of behavior on the part of a stingray is very unusual.

Stingrays are large, very flat fish with a long, whiplike tail near the end of which is a sharp, jagged and poisonous stinger. They are close relatives of sharks, and, like sharks, have a skeleton made entirely of cartilage. Even before the two incidents described above, the stingray had earned an evil reputation, which was at least partially deserved. Chances are they are usually non-aggressive, but when they lie partially buried in the sand of shallow water, they will defend themselves if someone steps on them.

The jagged wound inflicted by the barb must always be considered serious. Aside from the danger of infection, there is the added difficulty that the barb releases a toxic substance into the wound from a gland at the base of the stinger. The effects of a sting frequently persist for weeks or months, and in some instances, permanent injury to the body part results.

The intrepid early explorer, Captain John Smith, was introduced to the sting of a ray while exploring the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1600s. He was in so much pain that his companions feared for his life. Smith eventually recovered, and was so impressed with the event that he named the site where the incident took place Stingray Point. The name endures today at a location where the Rappahannock River enters the Bay.

There are about 13 different species of stingrays that roam the Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay. One of these, the spotted eagle ray, is the one that jumped into the boat in Florida and critically wounded the 81-year-old man. This ray has been described as flying through the water by the flapping of its lateral fins, and this may be the explanation of how it flew out of the water like a true flying fish and landed in the boat.

The stingray with which I am most familiar is common in the Chesapeake. This one is the cow-nosed ray, which is sometimes called the double-ahead ray because of an indentation on the snout that gives the appearance of an upper and lower head. Not too many residents of the Chesapeake are fond of this fish.

It wrecks havoc with underwater eel grass as it roots around for shellfish. Using its flap-like fins, it blows away the sand, searching for soft-shell clams that are crushed by the ray’s sharp teeth. Unfortunately, oysters seem to be the favorite item in the diet of the cow-nose, and large numbers of the bivalves are destroyed in a given season. An oyster is a pretty tough nut to crack, but this ray seems to have little trouble getting to the succulent meat inside the shells. The “bill” of the oyster’s shells are nipped off with sharp teeth, and a suction created by the ray’s “wings” deftly removes the meat from the shell. A recent study has shown that, at certain times of the year, the cow-nose’s diet consists almost entirely of shellfish. One oyster propagator in Virginia recently reported a loss of some $40,000 to the ravenous rays in young oysters he had planted.

Formerly, some nefarious seafood packers along the coast and Bay hunted stingrays to produce what was called “Ocean Scallops.” A pipe-like tool, with a diameter the size of a silver dollar and with one end sharpened, would gouge out a cylinder of ray meat. The cylinder would then be cut into the sizes of many scallops. A scallop is a shellfish that some gourmands relish as much as an oyster, but apparently the scam went on for years before it was detected and forbidden by the authorities.

I remember vividly a day years ago when I was fishing off Sharkfin Shoal at the mouth of the Nanticoke River as it enters the Chesapeake Bay and hooked a big fish in deep water. About 40 minutes later, I finally got it to boat side and discovered it was a large cow-nose ray. For a moment, I thought about trying to get it aboard to take a picture, but the glaring eye of the monster seemed to say, “I wouldn’t try that if I were you.” Heeding that perceived advice, I cut the line and watched the ray swim away.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Nov. 1-7, 2006, issue

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