Friday, August 15, 2014

Up Close and Personal: Little Skates are Big Draws to the Exploration Center

BELOW THE SURFACE

Cousins to stingrays and sharks, little skates have become common residents in Narragansett Bay over the years. At the Exploration Center in Newport, they are also one of the most intriguing and exciting attractions to the public.

Jennifer Packard
Communications Intern
In the back of the aquarium, flipping and floating through a see-through touch tank, as many as eight to ten of these flat elasmobranchs (creatures whose skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone) skim the sandy bottom. It is tempting for people to mistake skates as stingrays at first, which is not far off since stingrays are indeed their cousins. But, unlike the larger rays that can grow to weigh as much as a small elephant, little skates only grow up to three feet in diameter and do not possess the poisonous barb at the end of their tail like the ray does. Instead, with their flat and triangular body shape, skates have spines down their backs for protection; spines that the public can feel while petting them. The skates' shape helps them to navigate the soft, sandy bottom of the Bay where they most prefer to hang out. Skates eat crabs, shrimp, and other small fish and can live up to fifty years.

Looking at skates, it is easy for one to think that the opening and closing slits just below their eyes are gills much like a shark has, but in actuality they are special vents called 'spiracles' that enable the skates to breathe underwater since they lack the gill ventilating system of their cousins. The females lay two eggs at a time in cases known to many beachgoers as 'mermaids' purses.' People will recognize these empty cases after the eggs are hatched, as blackened outer shells found amongst the seaweed washed up on beaches. Patrons to the EC can hold the smooth and oddly shaped 'purses' containing unfertilized eggs in the skate touch tank. Accompanying little skates in this tank are large and small horseshoe crabs that love to scurry around and bury themselves in the sand, as well as hermit crabs and moon snails.
 
A smiling skate

Nature lovers at the Exploration Center are thrilled when these skates attach themselves to the glass windows, revealing their almost transparent underside. When skates do this, they display a lot of their inner organs and flash what could be almost passed off as a mischievous smile. A young boy next to me broke into an astounded smile as a skate he was watching positioned herself against the window and came eye to eye with him. "I think she's smiling at you," I told him, which only made him smile even more. 

- Jennifer

Jennifer Packard is studying Creative Writing at Rhode Island College

The Exploration Center & Aquarium is open daily 10a.m. to 4p.m. through Labor Day.