Common Stingray

Common Stingray
  • Scientific name: Dasyatis pastinaca
  • Size: Up to 5ft across and 80lbs. Typically 2ft across and 10lbs.
  • UK minimum size: 16ins/41cm from wingtip to wingtip.
  • UK shore caught record: 78lb 8oz
  • IUCN Status: DD (Data Deficient)
  • Distribution: Found in tropical and sub-tropical seas around the Mediterranean. Can come into UK waters and be found around the English Channel and Irish Sea.
  • Feeds on: Wide diet of shellfish, marine worms, crustaceans and small fish.
  • Description: Body is a rounded triangular shape. Can be brown, olive or black in colour and skin is smooth. Snout is pointed and tail is long at about one and a half times the bodylength. A row of blunt thorns may be present on the backs of older specimens. Tail contains a large, serrated venomous stinger.
  • Additional notes: This article refers to only the common stingray which is the only type of stingray found in UK waters.
There are many different species of stingray around the world with the vast majority living in tropical and subtropical seas, with a few species living in freshwater. Many people are surprised to hear that such an exotic species can be found around the UK, but the common stingray can indeed be found in British waters. Although many books and websites say they are found throughout the UK they only seem to be reported around the south of England and Ireland.

Habitat and Feeding

Common Stingray

A common stingray burrowing into the sand off the coast of Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Stingray live in relatively shallow water up to around fifty or sixty metres deep. They prefer sandy, muddy or light shingle seabeds, although they will be found around rocky or reef outcrops if they are surrounded by clean ground. The range of the common stingray extends from the edges of the Baltic Sea, throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea and along the northern coast of Africa. The common stingray can be solitary, or found in small groups. Young stingray are unfussy feeders which will eat all manner of small, bottom-dwelling sea creatures such as crabs, marine worms, shellfish and small lobsters. They will rummage around in the sediment of the seabed to dig creatures out of their homes to eat, and will also scavenge on any dead and rotting fish they find. As the stingray gets older and larger it becomes more of a hunter, preying on both small flatfish and roundfish and moving away from eating crustaceans and invertebrates.

 Commercial Value and Conservation

The stingray is of little commercial value. Its wings are edible and are occasionally sold but are not in great demand anywhere in Europe. It can also produce fish oil and the carcasses can be sent to fish processing plants to be turned into fishmeal. The biggest damage to stocks comes from stingray being caught as bycatch. Since stingray prefer shallower inshore waters they are protected from being caught by large deep sea trawlers, but small-scale inshore fishing operations can still reduce numbers by catching stingray in gill nets and inshore long-lines. Stingray numbers are down in the Mediterranean and in certain areas they have been declared Near Threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). However, there are protected stingray areas around Mallorca, and laws stopping trawling within areas where stingray are likely to be found. Overall there is not enough information for the IUCN to come to a conclusion about overall stingray stocks and this species is currently classed as Data Deficient.

Sea Fishing for Stingray in the UK

Stingray Distribution

The common stingray is found throughout Europe, but only along the southern and western coasts of the British Isles.

As stingray are only found in any numbers around the south and west of the British Isles it is only anglers in these areas who specifically target this species. The best times to fish for stingrays in during the late spring and summer when sea temperatures are at the highest, with a spell of clear, warm weather and settled seas being the best conditions for bringing stingrays within range of the shore angler. A single hook clipped down rig makes sense when fishing for this species and hook size should not be too large with a 1/0 to 3/0 in a strong pattern being sufficient to handle most stingrays. Stingrays can be found far from the shore or surprisingly close in, so it pays to vary casting distance when fishing for this species. When fishing for stingrays the choice of bait can be difficult as stingrays feed on a wide variety of food and it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what they will take. Ragworms and peeler crab can be a good choice in many areas, whereas mackerel or bluey strip and squid/cuttlefish can also be effective baits. Anglers should always be careful when handling any stingrays which have been caught due to the obvious danger posed by the stinger. Thick gardening gloves are a good idea to protect the anglers hands, and due to the rarity of stingrays almost all anglers return stingrays that have been caught to the sea.

These days the scarcity of stingrays means that the vast majority of stingrays are inadvertently caught by anglers fishing for other species such as bass, sole or plaice. However, stringray numbers in British waters do appear to have fluctuated wildly over the last few decades, with climatic conditions seemingly playing an important role in how many stingrays come to British waters. It is perfectly possible that warming seas and other environmental factors will see stingray numbers increase in British waters over the coming years, and the fact that the British record for this species was broken in 2015 with a stingray of 78lb 8oz adds weight to this theory.

‘Attacks’ on Humans

Stingrays are most famous for the serrated, venomous stinger which is concealed in their tail. This can be up to fifteen inches long in the largest stingrays. The stinger is made out of a cartilaginous material called vasodentin. Two grooves on the underside of the stinger hold cells which contain a protein-based venom. Once the point of the stinger pierces flesh the cells are torn open and release their poison inside of the victim. The stinger is not attached to the body of the stingray particularly firmly, and it will often snap off in an attack. However, stingrays can rapidly re-grow a new stinger. In fact stingrays will sometimes naturally shed their stinger if it has grown too big and unwieldy, and sometimes a second stinger has started to grow before the original one has fallen off, meaning stingray can sometimes have two stingers. Stingrays held in captivity have their stingers removed for safety reasons. However, the staff of the aquariums will have to cut back the stinger every so often as it re-grows. Generally stingray are relatively timid creatures which swim away from predators such as sharks and only use their stinger as a defensive measure if they are surprised or boxed in.

Stringray's Stinger

The stinger from a small stingray. The ruler next to it is in centimetres. The stingers from the largest stingrays can be up to fifteen inches in length.

When human skin is pierced by a stingray’s stinger obvious pain is caused by the physical damage to the skin. However, the venom causes the wound to become inflamed and it can go on to cause symptoms such as serious headaches, nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea, and in rare, extreme cases the inflammation and reaction in body parts can make amputation necessary. Further problems can be caused when fragments of the stinger, or even the whole stinger itself, can snap off inside of the victim and require medical attention to be removed. Wounds caused by a stingray also bleed for a long time, although there is no scientific evidence of an anti-hemoglobin agent being contained within the venom. The pain is at its most intense for the first hour after the attack, but can persist for several days. The venom of a stingray is similar to that of a weever fish in that it is protein-based, and is destroyed by heat. Affected body parts are therefore placed into hot water to ease the pain and minimise the impact of the venom.

Stingray Injury

A bather puts their foot into hot water to ease the pain after stepping on a stingray and being spiked in the foot.

Because stingrays only use their stinger as a defensive measure the vast majority of attacks are caused by divers provoking stingrays or surprising or starling a stingray by approaching it from behind. Bathers can also be ‘attacked’ by stingrays if they accidentally step on one which has buried itself into sand. Once disturbed in this way the stingray will lash out with its stinger as it swims away, often piercing the leg or foot of the person who stepped on it. Stingrays are most likely to cause a fatal injury if the stinger hits the face or chest of a person, with wounds to the legs or feet being less serious. However, anyone affected by a stingray attack should seek the advice of a medical professional, as there can be lasting after effects such as reactions to the venom or fragments of the stinger remaining inside the wound. No one knows for sure how many people have been killed by stingrays over the years. Some put the total at seventeen, whereas other reports put it as high as thirty-five confirmed deaths.

Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray.

The highest profile person to be killed by a stingray was the Australian wildlife expert and TV presenter Steve Irwin. In September 2006 he was filming an documentary about dangerous sea creatures off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. According to reports his team were trying to capture footage of a large stingray swimming away from Irwin when the stingray reacted as if a predator was approaching and lashed out with its stinger, piercing Irwin’s chest multiple times and causing a serious injury to his heart which resulted in his death.

Stingrays in Ancient History

Ulysses

Ulysses met a stingray related death.

The supposed destructive power of the stingray has led to many stories and myths over the centuries. There have also been many over-exaggerated stories about the destructive power of stingrays. The Roman natural historian and philosopher Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) believed the stingray lay in wait on the seabed and pierced fish as they swam past. He also thought that the stinger of a stingray could pierce armour and would cause a tree to die if it was stabbed into the trunk or branches, while Roman author Claudius Aelianus (175-235 AD) believed that the human body was not capable of recovering from a wound caused by a stingray. In Mayan civilisation (approx. 250-900AD) the stingers from a stingray would be used as the implement to draw blood from a person in the bloodletting and human sacrifice ceremonies that were an important part of Mayan culture. Using the stinger for this purpose would send the victim delirious through the combined effects of loss of blood, fear and the stingray’s venom. However, the Mayans believed that the stinger had magical properties and the victim was instead sent to a half-way world between life and death by being cut with the stinger. Stingrays also play an important role in Greek mythology. Hercules – despite being a demigod (half-human, half-god) – had a finger bitten off by a stingray. Ulysses also ran into stingray-related problems. He was warned in a dream to beware of his own son, and was eventually killed when his son accidentally stabbed him with a spear tipped with the stinger from a stingray.

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