Thunderstorms have returned to Florida’s east coast. On most days this summer the late afternoon dark clouds fat with rain kept their distance while the fringe of green above the beach began to brown. But something jostled that dry pattern and one day in mid-August the familiar claps of thunder and razzle-dazzle of lightening returned, bringing with it the long awaited downpours. For the past ten days the afternoon rain has crashed down in a daily abbreviated monsoon. We’ve been spared the threat of dangerous weather this far into the season, but according to weather wizards, the approach of Tropical Storm Isaac now in the northern Caribbean may change that. Looks like we could be tying down the outdoor furniture and battening down for Sunday and Monday.
Stingrays are common in coastal tropical waters around the world, but a comparatively rare sight on the Florida beach that I call home. Unlike a hundred other creatures of the deep, until this week I had never seen one washed up in the surf. The one in the photograph below is a baby whiptail stingray in the family called Dasyatidae. Found worldwide in tropical to temperate marine waters, they have flattened pectoral fin discs that are most often oval, but are sometimes seen in a diamond shape. They range in size from seven inches to almost six and a half feet across. The name comes from the whip-like tail, which is longer than the disc. All of the whiptail rays have a venomous barb near the base of the tail for defense. In the picture below the stinger barb is visible just below the small white shell at the top.
Stingrays are a fish with a cartilage skeleton and related to the shark. Most have the barbed stinger on the tail, which has two grooves on the underside with venom glands. In larger rays the barb can reach a length of almost fourteen inches. It is covered with a thin layer of skin where the venom is concentrated.
They feed mostly on mollusks, crustaceans, and sometimes small fish, but with eyes on top of the body and a mouth on the underside, stingrays cannot see their prey, so use smell and electroreceptors instead. They bear live young in litters of five to thirteen.
Usually docile creatures, the most common reaction is to flee any disturbance, but they will use their stinger in cases of self defense. For the victim, the sting causes local trauma, pain, swelling, muscle cramps from the venom, and possibly infection from bacteria. It is a very painful injury, but seldom life-threatening unless the stinger hits a vital area. (Most are familiar with the sad death of Steve Irwin in 2006 from a stingray.) In most cases the barb breaks off in the wound requiring surgery to remove the fragments.
In some countries rays are caught as food using fishing lines or spears. Depending on the country, there are any number of recipes, but in Singapore and Malaysia it is commonly grilled over charcoal, then served with spicy sauce.