The stingray is the only British representative of a fairly large family of rays that is virtually world-wide in its distribution but whose members are most common in tropical and warm temperate seas. In the cool temperate waters of Britain it is a summer season migrant which returns to the warmer waters of the south in autumn.
It isn’t difficult to identify. Like the ordinary rays, it is broad-bodied, with thick, well developed pectoral fins and a tail that is rounded at the base but tapering and whip-like at the end. There is no dorsal fin on the tail, but it has one or two (rarely three) long, serrated, dagger-like spines about halfway down the tail. The skin of the back is smooth but some individuals have a series of small rough-surfaced ‘buttons’ on the back.
The only other ray with a tail spine is the rare eagle ray, with pointed wingtips, a head distinct from the body, and a small dorsal fin in front of the spine.
A spiny customer
The spine, serrated (barbed) on both edges, is up to 13cm (5in) long. It is a dangerous weapon because the tissue lining the grooves on its sides contains a highly potent venom. Wounds from the sting are both dangerous and very painful. Fortunately, the stingray doesn’t live in extremely shallow water and there is little chance of bathers or paddlers being stung, although this is a relatively common event with other spined species in tropical seas.
However, anglers who catch a stingray should handle it with great care. The way it uses its sting is to stab upwards over its back, but the initial slow movement of the tail is deceptive because the final lunge with the sting is lightning-fast. To avoid injury, hold the tail down with your boot placed close to the sting. Cutting the tail off before returning the fish is senselessly cruel, although the ray survives — several tail-less stingrays are caught each year on the Essex coast.
Follow the feeding
The stingray feeds almost exclusively on molluscs and crustaceans, mainly crabs. Most specimens are caught in the major estuaries of the Kent and Essex coasts and in the Solent, both of which regions have large populations of cockles, mussels and even oysters, as well as shore crabs and other crustaceans. The fish can tolerate the lower salinity levels of estuaries.
A bottom-living fish, the stingray is most abdundant on soft, sandy bottoms or, less often, on mud. It is found at depths of about 4-75m (12-240ft), but does not seem to come very close inshore.
Although it has the classic body form of a bottom-living fish, it swims actively in mid-water. As it seems to be a summertime visitor to British seas, it must be assumed that it swims the several hundred miles needed to get here from somewhere off the French or Spanish coasts. However, it has to be admitted that this is only an assumption because no sustained tagging has ever been attempted to establish exactly where the British stingrays go in winter.
The thickness of the wings shows how well developed the swimming muscles are to enable the fish to make such long-distance migrations.