Quick notes:

  • Manta rays are enormous, but they are not predators (unless you’re plankton)

  • A recent study suggests that manta rays form friendships with other rays

  • Manta rays are some of the smartest fish in the oceans and are endangered due to climate change and pollution

Feeling like getting wild in a literally exotic way? Invite some manta rays to your next party. Contrary to popular belief, these cold-blooded fish are quite the party animals.

What is a manta ray?

Manta rays fall into two categories: giant manta rays and reef rays. They can live for up to 40 years, stretch to over 11 feet in diameter, and are surprisingly social. Instead of gliding through the dangerous ocean chowing down on birds and big fish, these friendly and gentle giants eat plankton brunches with their besties.

What’s so special about the social lives of manta rays?

Everyone knows that an elephant never forgets, that penguins sit on their eggs through the freezing winters to keep their eggs safe, and that wolves are unfailingly loyal to their wolf packs. But what makes the manta ray so interesting? Fish haven’t gotten the good press that other species have when it comes to personality and family values, but that’s all about to change.

Biologists with the Marine Megafauna Foundation recently published a study in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology that has the potential to completely change the way we see manta rays. Over the course of five years, these researchers observed and studied over 500 individual rays.

Not only did the researchers notice that most rays seemed to prefer hanging out with other rays to being alone, but they also discovered that rays had something even sweeter going on: friendship.

Robert Perryman, the lead biologist on this project, is hesitant to use the word “friendship” to describe the relationships between his observed manta rays; the animals wouldn’t necessarily spend significant portions of their lives with specific individuals, but it is clear that their relationships are more than random pairings. Perryman even says that his research demonstrates that “individual manta rays have preferred relationships with others that are maintained over time, and structured societies.” Pretty cool, manta rays, pretty cool.

Are manta rays smart enough to form friendships?

So far, all evidence points to yes. Giant manta rays are one of the few animal species that can actually recognize themselves as individuals in mirrors, and they have great big brains (the biggest fish brain ever, in fact).

Pixabay

Manta rays don’t just hang out with their friends on the weekends. They seem to eat and date in groups, too, leading scientists to suspect that they are primarily social animals (just like us!). These animals also have an entire system of communication that we know very little about; according to biologists, rays have white markings on their backs that they can brighten or darken depending on the social situation.

Why should people care about manta rays?

Just because manta rays can form friendships doesn’t mean they’re going to give you a handshake and a hug if you happen upon them (though they’re also not going to hurt you—manta rays don’t have the deadly stingers some of their cousins have). So why should we care?

Unless you’re a dues-paying member of the manta ray fan club, chances are you don’t give them too much thought. But our world is in danger: climate change and pollution are causing irreversible damage to our planet. The more we connect with animals—even animals whose hilarious antics don’t frequently feature on YouTube videos—the more we can work to support the cause of the mantas and help save everyone. 

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101

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