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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.


  • Kite-shaped body
  • Varies in color from brown to olive green
  • Whitish belly
  • Long, brown tail that looks like a whip
  • Squared, indented snout that resembles a cow’s nose
  • Wingspan of up to 3 feet
  • Weighs as much as 50 pounds


  • Lives in schools near the surface of shallow waters
  • Forms schools based on sex and age. Some schools can be very large.


  • Visits the lower and middle Chesapeake Bay from May-October
  • Travels as far north as Kent Island
  • Leaves the Bay in autumn for southern coastal waters


  • Eats mollusks such as oysters, hard clams and soft-shelled clams
  • Finds its prey by flapping its fins against the bottom to uncover buried shellfish. It then uses its powerful dental plates to crush the shells open.
  • 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

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 11-18 inches long

Other Facts:

  • Sometimes called a “doublehead” because of the indentation around its snout
  • 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.
  • Potentially dangerous because it has a poisonous spine at the base of its tail
  • 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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