Southern stingrays have large, flat, diamond-shaped disks without distinct heads. Their dark-brown upper bodies and white or whitish underbellies are ideal camouflage for animals that spend their days well buried in sand. From above, only their eyes and huge spiracles (often mistaken for eyes) are visible.
At night, stingrays slowly graze over the sandy seafloor. Since their eyes are on top of their bodies, they depend on electro-receptors and keen senses of smell and touch to find food. To uncover buried prey, stingrays force jet streams of water through their mouths or flop their fins over the sand. If they find a clam, the rays' stubby teeth are strong enough to easily crush the shells. Then they spit out the fragments.
Southern stingrays are plentiful, but at least nine other species of stingrays are at a high risk for extinction. Many people in western Pacific Ocean areas value stingrays as a main source of protein. Stingray skin is processed into leather that's strong, durable and almost indestructible. At one time craftsmen used this rough leather for sandpaper; samurai warriors wore stingray leather armor. Modern tanning methods have changed the formerly stiff leather into a pliable one that's now in great demand for boots ($800 per pair), wallets and other accessories.
Since there's no data or restrictions on stingray catches, the Ocean Conservancy warns that a sudden surge in demand for stingray leather and food could seriously threaten several stingray populations.
Southern stingrays visit cleaning stations where bluehead wrasses and Spanish hogfish eat parasites and mucus from the stingrays' bodies. Atlantic stingrays can be found in singles, pairs and sometimes in loose aggregations.
If you travel to stingray habitats, like the Cayman Islands, remember to shuffle your feet through the sand when you're wading in the water—these shy animals will simply swim out of the way. Never try to touch or harass stingrays or other ocean animals. By being respectful of their lives and homes, you'll help protect their populations for the future.
Although southern stingrays aren't aggressive, they have venomous spines with serrated barbs on the bases of their tails. The spines are only used for defense, but if threatened or stepped on, a ray raises its tail overhead, scorpion style, and drives its spine into the intruder. For humans, the pain is intense, and the jagged wound takes time to heal.