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Stunning photos of the elusive spotted stingray taken by tourists and divers are being used by scientists to protect the species from extinction

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 6/18/2019 Victoria Bell For Mailonline

Stunning images of the smalleye stingray taken by tourists are helping scientists catalogue them into the first study on the elusive marine animals. 

Despite being the world's largest oceanic stingray, it is very rarely spotted alive, and almost nothing is known about it.

Scientists have been able to examine photo IDs to study this rare animal in southern Mozambique, one of the only locations where it is regularly seen.

The paper is a first compilation of observations that could be used to aid in their protection as their status is 'likely endangered', because they are so rarely seen. 

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The smalleye has a wingspan that stretches greater than seven feet, yet its eyes are the size of raisins. While most stingrays avoid humans, the smalleye appears to be inquisitive, sometimes swimming within feet of scuba divers © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited The smalleye has a wingspan that stretches greater than seven feet, yet its eyes are the size of raisins. While most stingrays avoid humans, the smalleye appears to be inquisitive, sometimes swimming within feet of scuba divers

The smalleye, given its name because of its raisen sized eyes, has a wingspan that stretches greater than seven feet (2m) and is distinguished from other rays by the white dorsal spots on its back.

Using this criteria, scientists have been able to examine photo IDs to study this rare animal in southern Mozambique, one of the only locations where it is regularly seen.

While most stingrays avoid humans, the smalleye appears to be inquisitive, sometimes swimming within feet of scuba divers. 

The paper is a first compilation of observations that could be used to aid in the animal's protection as currently they are considered data deficient by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

But according to the study, they are 'likely endangered' because they've been so hard to find, though they're occasionally accidentally caught by fishers.   

Observations also show they only have one pup at a time and take many years to reproduce. 

Before the early 2000s, there were only a couple of verified live sightings of smalleye stingrays (Megatrygon microps). 

But in the past fifteen years, biologist Andrea Marshall and her colleagues, from the Marine Megafauna Foundation, have spotted 70 individuals off the coast of Mozambique. 

The paper shows that these rays can be identified individually by the unique spot pattern that each has on its back.

Using these images allowed the researchers to use photos and videos taken by people around the world to track where specific animals travel and what they do.  

While most stingrays avoid humans, the smalleye appears to be inquisitive, sometimes swimming within feet of scuba divers. It has a wingspan that stretches greater than seven feet (222cm), with eyes the size of raisins and distinguished by other rays by white dorsal spots on its back © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited While most stingrays avoid humans, the smalleye appears to be inquisitive, sometimes swimming within feet of scuba divers. It has a wingspan that stretches greater than seven feet (222cm), with eyes the size of raisins and distinguished by other rays by white dorsal spots on its back Before the early 2000s, there were only a couple of sightings of smalleye stingrays (Megatrygon microps). But in the past 15 years, Andrea Marshall and her colleagues, from the Marine Megafauna Foundation, have spotted 70 individuals off the coast of Mozambique © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Before the early 2000s, there were only a couple of sightings of smalleye stingrays (Megatrygon microps). But in the past 15 years, Andrea Marshall and her colleagues, from the Marine Megafauna Foundation, have spotted 70 individuals off the coast of Mozambique

'We reported the first sightings of smalleye stingray in 2004 and have since been racing against the clock to learn more about their ecology before it is too late', said Dr Andrea Marshall, co-founder and principal scientist of the Marine Megafauna Foundation. 

The research says that 31 per cent of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of a lack of scientific effort and information.

To date, it has not been possible to evaluate the conservation status of smalleye stingrays, however, the study is an important first step in understanding more about the animal's ecology and behaviour.

'These mysterious giants are thought to be patchily distributed across the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, but southern Mozambique is probably the best location to encounter them on inshore reefs', Dr Marshall said.

a fish swimming under water: The research says that 31% of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List, because of a lack of scientific effort and information. To date, it has not been possible to evaluate the conservation status of smalleye stingrays © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited The research says that 31% of the world's sharks and rays are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List, because of a lack of scientific effort and information. To date, it has not been possible to evaluate the conservation status of smalleye stingrays

The team tested whether photographs of the stingrays' white dorsal spots could be used to distinguish and track individuals over long periods of time.

'Through local dive centres, we called on tourists to help us collect images of this solitary stingray. 

'Fortunately for us, southern Mozambique and its rich marine life attract many passionate scuba divers, most of which own GoPros or other lightweight cameras and will happily make their images and footage available for research', said Atlantine Boggio-Pasqua who volunteered with the foundation. 

'Their contributions proved immensely valuable, we managed to gather more than 140 photographs suitable for comparison and identification, with some images dating as far back as 2003.' 

a man that is standing in the water: Dr Marshall's team concluded that smalleye stingrays are likely under threat from increasing fishing pressures. Targeted and incidental catches in industrial coastal nets operating offshore are an ongoing issue in Mozambique. Here, fishermen capture a stingray © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Dr Marshall's team concluded that smalleye stingrays are likely under threat from increasing fishing pressures. Targeted and incidental catches in industrial coastal nets operating offshore are an ongoing issue in Mozambique. Here, fishermen capture a stingray a group of people on a beach: Targeted and incidental catches in industrial coastal nets operating offshore are an ongoing issue in Mozambique. Dr Marshall emphasised that there are many questions that remain unanswered about this rare species. Here, tourists watch fishermen butcher a stingray © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Targeted and incidental catches in industrial coastal nets operating offshore are an ongoing issue in Mozambique. Dr Marshall emphasised that there are many questions that remain unanswered about this rare species. Here, tourists watch fishermen butcher a stingray

The team was able to visually identify seventy different individuals, including fifteen  that had been seen on several occasions in the area. 

Smalleyes were often spotted where reef bannerfish and other small fish appeared to be removing parasites from the rays' skin, called 'cleaning stations'.

Looking at their migratory behaviour, they found that some individuals travelled hundreds of miles along the coastline.

They noted a near-term pregnant female which travelled from Tofo in Mozambique to the Bazaruto Archipelago, 124 miles (200km) away. 

She returned to Tofo, no longer visibly pregnant.

Dr Marshall's team concluded that smalleye stingrays are likely under threat from increasing fishing pressures. 

Targeted and incidental catches in industrial coastal nets operating offshore are an ongoing issue in Mozambique.

Dr Marshall emphasised that there are many questions that remain unanswered about this rare species. 

'Where do they live, how fast do they mature and how do they reproduce is still not known.

'Filling these knowledge gaps is crucial to figuring out how to protect them properly in Mozambique and other parts of the Indian Ocean', she said. 

The study was published this month in the journal PeerJ

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