World’s first manta ray nursery found

Rare manta ray nursery uncovered in Texas

A group of researchers led by Ph.D. candidate Joshua Stewart from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and scientists from the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have discovered what they say is the first known manta ray nursery in the world. Baby mantas are nearly absent from nearly all manta people around the planet, so less is understood concerning the juvenile life span.

Stweart agrees. "The more we understand why these areas are important", he says, "the better we can tailor [conservation strategies] to them-" and help ensure the young rays living in these nurseries survive long enough to have their own pups. Finally, a nursery of juvenile manta rays was discovered and will soon open the door for a deeper understanding of the species. Reaching wingspans of up to 7 meters (23 feet), they're often called the gentle giants of the sea. According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they're also "typically found in subtropical and tropical waters around the world with aggregation sites commonly found far from coastal areas".

For years, the actual way of life of baby manta rays had remained elusive from experts.

Apparently, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration researchers who manage the sanctuary believed the manta rays they regularly had monitored were a different species, and not the young offspring of the larger, endangered animals, Stewart said. He then observed more baby mantas swimming in the area and surmised that this was an unusual occurrence. Stewart and his team made a decision to examine 25 years of diving data collected by divers working for the Flower Garden Banks.

But in the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary, things were exactly the opposite: 95% of the mantas there are juveniles, with a wingspan of only 2.25 meters (7.38 feet).

The 56 miles2 (145 metres2), and expanding, reserve in NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary consists of healthy coral reefs, which are rare in the Caribbean these days. These coral towns have grown in addition to hard substrate thrust from the seafloor from the maturation of salt domes.

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Specific Types of zooplankton are abundant in those deeper Habitats and are proven to be a favourite prey item for mantas. Catching sun at the water's surface could be too risky, as several large shark species dwell in the Gulf. Instead, the study's authors suspect that they retreat to the relative safety of the banks after diving into cold offshore waters.

The Flower Garden Banks is one of the 14 federally designated underwater spots under NOAA's protection and is the only site of its kind in the Gulf of Mexico. He was originally visiting the Flower Garden Banks to collect tissue samples from mantas to determine if the population found there is genetically related to other populations found in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. "From a conservation perspective, it means that a lot of the questions that you get to answer will actually be meaningful and have an impact on management".

Flower Garden Banks has been pursuing a plan to increase the protected areas within the sanctuary since 2006, Emma Hickerson, the sanctuary's research coordinator, told Live Science.

A manta ray as seen in July 2015 at the East Flower Garden Bank, Buoy #1.

The discovery could be an important one for manta ray conservation. Hundreds of research programs to further understanding of the planet are under way today on every continent and in every ocean.

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