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Cownose Ray

Rhinoptera bonasus

Cownose rays swim by flapping their
Cownose rays swim by flapping their "wings" like a bird. As they swims, the tips of their fins break the surface and can look like shark fins. (Mr. T in DC/Flickr)

The cownose ray is a brown, kite-shaped ray with a long, whip-like tail. It visits the Chesapeake Bay’s shallow waters in summer.


The cownose ray's kite-shaped body has a wingspan of up to three feet and can weigh as much as 50 pounds. It varies in color from brown to olive green with a whitish belly and a long, brown tail that looks like a whip. Its squared, indented snout resembles a cow’s nose.


Live in schools near the surface of shallow waters, forming schools based on sex and age. Some schools can be very large.


Visit the lower and middle Chesapeake Bay from May to October, traveling as far north as Kent Island. In autumn, the rays leave the Bay for southern coastal waters.


The cownose ray eats mollusks such as oysters, hard clams and soft-shelled clams. It finds its prey by flapping its fins against the bottom to uncover buried shellfish, then uses its powerful dental plates to crush the shells open. It has been known to destroy bay grass beds and cause considerable losses to commercial clam and oyster harvests while feeding.


Cobia, bull sharks and sandbar sharks are known predators of cownose rays.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Mating takes place in late summer before the rays leave the Bay for the winter. Females give birth to a single live young, called a pup, in mid-June the following summer. At birth, pups are about 11 to 18 inches long.

Other Facts:

  • The cownose ray is sometimes called a “doublehead” because of the indentation around its snout.
  • This ray swims by flapping its fins like a bird. As it swims, the tips of the fins break the surface and can look like shark fins. Many “shark” sightings in the Bay are actually cownose rays.
  • Cownose rays are potentially dangerous because they have poisonous spines at the base of their tails.
  • Captain John Smith learned about the cownose ray’s spine the hard way. During his 1608 voyage he was stung so severely that his crew thought he was going to die. The site on the Rappahannock River where he was stung is still known today as “Stingray Point.”
  • Although cownose rays are sometimes referred to as skates or stingrays, they are technically neither. Cownose rays belong to their own family of rays.

Sources and Additional Information:

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