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How do you pick up a stingray?

Asked by: Brooke Chrysler
School: Owego Elementary School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mr. McCloe
Hobbies/Interests: Cheerleading, softball and playing with Bratz dolls
Career Interest: Hair Stylist

Answer from Dale Madison

Professor of Biology, Binghamton University

PhD school:
University of Maryland, College Park.

Family:
Wife: Diane; four children: Ryan, Nathan, Lisa, Tracy

Interests/hobbies:
Ecology, fitness, landscaping, craftsmanship and welfare volunteer.

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Your question, Brooke, raises other interesting questions, especially given 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin's recent death from a stingray stab to his heart. A quick answer is 'don't even consider it, it's too dangerous.' Professionals always secure the tail (where the toxic spine is) of wild sting rays before any handling, even in those individuals that appear to be dead once brought ashore or onto a boat - the sudden, forward thrust reflex of the tail may still be activated. Where sting rays are tame, such as at Sting Ray City near the Cayman Islands where I've been and where divers have conditioned them to human presence by feeding them squid, some divers grab them by the lateral fins and hold them like hats over their heads to entertain tourists - a bad idea because even tamed sting rays can be unpredictable. Some people may also get the idea to try this on their own with untamed stingrays. Sting rays are deceptively shy, docile creatures, and easily approached by snorkelers and SCUBA divers, like me. In my more naive days snorkeling in Jamaica, I even chased one down in open water for a close underwater picture. Little did I know that I was within a foot or two of probably being stabbed. Subsequent examination of the photo revealed that the sting ray, in this case a large adult Southern Sting Ray, was giving me a stern warning by hunching its back, a threat posture typical of sharks and rays. So, what did the more sensible Steve Irwin, an experienced handler of all kinds of dangerous animals, do wrong in trying to film a stingray? Probably several things: he approached from the bull ray's front end, the usual target zone of a threatened ray, he unintentionally cornered the ray between himself and his camera man, and I suspect that he, as I, didn't fully note the probable hunched back. The latter is understandable in Irwin's case, because rays on the bottom sediment cover their bodies to conceal their presence. Apparently feeling threatened, the stingray reflexively thrust its tail forward over its head, striking Irwin's chest. Irwin's response of pulling out the spine from his chest was in hindsight another mistake. The spine is a greatly enlarged, tooth-like scale, which in its tiny, unmodified state covers the skin of most sharks and rays. In the stingray, the enlarged, 3-inch, enamel-like spine has a venomous secretion in a groove along the spine as well in a gland beneath the spine, and it is covered by a sheath of skin. The spine also has a sharp, saw-tooth edge with each tooth facing backward, like a barb on a hook. When Irwin pulled out the spine, according to medical authorities, he probably caused further breaking of the skin sheath releasing the venom, and further severed tissue surrounding the wound allowing even more venom into the blood stream. A final warning to those around stingrays, and perhaps wanting to handle them, is to stay away from them! The reflex is so rapid, and the enamel-like spine so hard, that the spines have been known to pierce hard rubber, boot leather, and even boat hulls. If you are a shuffling walker or noisy swimmer in shallow Florida waters, you'll frighten them off before any threat to you, and so when it comes to sting rays, be noisy but not nosey.

Last Updated: 9/18/13