There are some ocean animals people fear. They include sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and sea urchins. This is the second in a series of four articles that will separate fact from myth, and provide some concrete advice to help alleviate any remaining fears you may have.
What is a stingray?
Stingrays are cartilaginous fish. That means they don’t have bony skeletons like we do. They have cartilage: a flexible tissue that is softer than bone. Stingrays are part of the shark, ray, skate and sawfish family of fish.
Stingrays have flattened bodies with eyes on the top of their heads, and mouths and gills on the underside of their bodies. There are approximately 60 different species of stingrays.
Stingrays generally live in the same places that people like: shallow, temperate and tropical ocean water. Most of the time they’re buried in the sand, rarely moving, with only their eyes visible. They do this for two reasons. It’s how they catch their food and protect themselves from predators. Stingrays also tend to be almost the same color as the surrounding sand. This is good camouflage for them, but not so great for us because sometimes we accidentally step on them.
All stingrays have a venomous spine (also called a barb) on or near the base of their muscular, whip-like tails. Some even have more than one barb. Stingray barbs all end in a sharp point and most of them have serrated edges.
Stingray Myths & Facts
Myth: All rays are stingrays.
Fact: Of the over 500 species that make up the ray family, only around 60 are stingrays.
Myth: All rays have venomous barbs.
Fact: Only stingrays have barbs on their tails.
Myth: Stingrays actively seek out humans to attack.
Fact: Stingrays are very docile animals that only attack when they feel threatened. The most common threat is a person stepping on one by accident. Stingrays also feel threatened if a person swims directly over or in front of them, blocking their escape route.
Myth: Stingray venom is lethal to humans.
Fact: Most stingray venom isn’t lethal to humans. Although extremely painful, stingray venom is rarely deadly to humans. In fact, in ancient Greece venom was extracted from stingray spines and used as an anesthetic.
Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter
Steve Irwin’s tragic, but unusual, death resulted in a significant increase in people’s fear of stingrays. However, since stingrays are naturally non-aggressive, how did a trained animal professional like Steve Irwin die? He died as a result of a freak accident when he swam above a large stingray. Although no one knows exactly why the stingray struck Steve Irwin with its tail (and thus its venomous barb), it’s probably because he was swimming too close to it. Unfortunately, the barb pierced The Crocodile Hunter’s heart. The stingray’s venom had nothing to do with his death. He died too quickly for the venom to even reach his bloodstream.
Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself from Stingrays
- Shuffle, or slide, your feet in the sand when you’re walking along shallow sandy bottoms. This is called the “stingray shuffle.” Walking this way alerts stingrays to your presence, and they’ll swim away because they don’t want to be stepped on.
- Wear polarized glasses. They help you see stingrays in shallow waters.
- If you catch a stingray on a fishing line, cut the line and release the animal without handling it.
If you are “stung”, rinse the wound in very hot (but not hot enough to cause burns) water. It helps relieve the pain from the venom. However, don’t remove the barb yourself since they’re usually serrated and cause more damage coming out than going in. Seek medical help as soon as possible.
— Lisa Dworkin