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.
Varies in color from brown to olive green
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
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:
Fishes of Chesapeake Bay by Edward O. Murdy, Ray S. Birdsong and John A. Musick