Background: First recorded hybrid manta ray discovered

A manta ray caught for tagging and samples
A manta ray caught for tagging and samples Photo: Mark Priest/KAUST University

The first hybrid manta ray has been identified off the Red Sea coast of Sudan following a pioneering research trip in late 2012. Scientists spent several weeks capturing, studying and releasing manta rays. Analysis of samples taken show that the first living reef manta ray and giant manta hybrid has been discovered.

This is pioneering research at its best, and this essential information will help to create a comprehensive management and conservation strategy to protect this globally iconic species. This project will have long term benefits for the entire ecosystem on which Manta rays depend.

– Colin Brown, Chief Executive at The Deep

The mission was carried out by scientists from The Cousteau Society, The Deep in Hull and The University of Windsor in collaboration with Sudan’s Wildlife Conservation General Administration, The Red Sea University and The Red Sea State Government. It aims to find better ways of managing and conserving the creatures.

During October and November 2012, the expert team of international researchers and Sudanese partners, conducted state-of-the-art fieldwork in the Dungonab Bay Marine Park and on the offshore coral reefs of Sudan, to study the iconic and vulnerable species of manta ray and to prepare the road for future missions focused on Sudan’s spectacular shark populations.

Until recently scientists only recognised one global Manta species but this theory was later revised to recognise the reef manta ray (manta alfredi) and giant manta ray (manta birostris). Although these do occur together, the species typically exhibit different habitat use and movement patterns and were thought to be reproductively isolated. Scientists were therefore surprised to find a hybrid manta during this research

Little is known about the movements and populations sizes of manta rays in the region. These animals are a symbol of freedom in the oceans and typically live for more than 20 years and are slow to reach sexual maturity. They are inherently inquisitive with humans and boats, making them particularly susceptible to fisherman and they are easily targeted due to their large size, slow speed and tendency to aggregate in shallow water coastal areas.

The marine protected area of Dungonab Bay, Sudan, represents one of few unique sites on our planet where an extraordinarily large number of these animals can be found. The occurrence of hybridization within this population, and the potential for hybrids to act as dispersal agents of genetic diversity, is a promising sign for these threatened species, but also raises questions over individual species management.

– Nigel Hussey, lead scientist, University of Windsor