Thursday, June 22, 2017

Critter tales – A common misperception

By Bay Gammans, communications intern

One of the first things a volunteer observes at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center is how many people mistake the little skates for stingrays. Both animals look fairly similar with a triangle-like shape and a flat profile, but they are actually quite different.

Both have similar tails, but the little skate's tail is completely harmless, while the stingray’s tail is poisonous. Stingrays are commonly larger than little skates and give birth to live young, while the little skates lay eggs. One thing they have in common is that their skeletons are made from cartilage, rather than bones, making them both part of the elasmobranch family.

Like most who grew up by the Bay, I picked up dried mermaid purses along the shore as a child. The Little Mermaid was my favorite movie, so I imagined that Ariel was missing a coin purse and I was lucky enough to find it. This led me to collecting not only mermaid purses, but also sea glass, shells, and rocks for my own mermaid collection.

As these activities became memories, I never really considered exactly what a mermaid purse was. Seeing them at the aquarium with baby little skates squirming around inside of them, not only brought back these memories, but answered questions I didn’t even know I had.
The little skate eggs incubate for 9 to 10 months. When they hatch, the newly-born little skates have clear skin that allows visitors to get a unique look at their inner organs. In a separate tank, the little skates continue to grow until they are large enough to be moved into a touch tank or released into Narragansett Bay. In the touch tank, visitors can pet the little skates with two fingers, if they aren’t camouflaged against the sand. Visitors may notice their skin feels like another resident at the aquarium, hinting at who their relatives may be.

Little skates are surprisingly unrelated to their tank mate, the horseshoe crab, but more closely related to the giant round touch tank in the middle of the room—the shark tank. The relation is easily seen between these two boneless fish, when the little skates and the dogfish sharks do the same dance. They bob their noses in the air above the water’s surface and flap around to get a better sense of their environment.

Once released to Narragansett Bay, little skates can be found along the bottom of the ocean eating anything from shellfish to small fish. They are an important part of the Bay’s ecosystem, as prey to sharks, other skates, certain types of fish, gray seals and certain crabs. To learn more about little skates head over to Save The Bay’s Exploration Center on Easton’s Beach at 175 Memorial Blvd.