The family Urolophidae, also known as stingarees, consists of two genera and about 35 species. They are bottom-dwelling rays in warm seas, usually lying partially buried under the sand. Their rounded pectoral discs are colored to blend in with the sand, mud, or rocks on which they live. Urolophids are relatively small rays, and feed on a variety of invertebrates, small fishes, and crustaceans. Their tails, distinguished by the presence of a well-developed caudal fin, are equipped with one or more serrated stinging spines. Like other rays they are viviparous; urolophids give birth to between two and four young each year, or in some cases, every two years. Because of their low birth rates and sometimes restricted range, urolophids are susceptible to human activity, although only one species is currently known to be threatened.
Urolophids can be found in the eastern Indian Ocean, the western Pacific, the eastern Pacific from California to Chile, and the western Atlantic, including the Caribbean. They are not known in the western Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, or the eastern Atlantic.
Biogeographic Regions: indian ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
Urolophids, or stingarees, are rays with a rounded, oval, or rhomboidal disc created by the pectoral fins. The disc is less than 1.3 times as broad as it is long. Their snouts are confluent with the rest of the disc. From the side they appear relatively flat, with the head not elevated. The spiracles (respiratory openings) are close behind the eyes, which are dorsolateral (above and to either side) on the head. The mouth is small and located on the underside of the snout, and often has several papillae on its floor. Teeth are small and do not form flat crushing plates as in some other rays. There are five pairs of small gill openings, and the internal gill arches do not have filter plates or ridges. Some stingarees lack a dorsal fin; in others the fin is small, located just in front of the sting and behind the pelvic fins. The serrated stinging spine, located about halfway down the tail, is large and functional. A distinguishing feature of these rays is the presence of a moderately large, elongated caudal fin that extends to the tip of the tail. In the genus Urolophus the caudal fin lobes are confluent, while in the genus Urotrygon they are separate. The tail is slender but not whip-like, and shorter than in stingrays. In coloration stingarees range from uniform grayish, yellowish, or brownish, to patterns of spots, reticulations, or dark mask-like bands. Their discs may be smooth or covered with small denticles. These rays tend to be small, not more than 76 cm in length.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry ; venomous
Urolophidae is a marine family, although some members enter estuaries. Restricted to tropical and warm temperate waters, urolophids are bottom-dwellers along coastlines and along the continental shelf. Most live in relatively shallow water but some occupy depths of at least 700 m down the continental slope. They generally prefer sandy bottoms in which they can bury themselves, but a few species live on rocky substrates (bottoms) or in association with sea vegetation such as kelp. Urolophids tend to have patterns and coloring that blend in with their environment.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; saltwater or marine
Aquatic Biomes: benthic ; coastal ; brackish water
Other Habitat Features: estuarine ; intertidal or littoral
Many stingarees feed on fishes, worms, shrimps, and other small organisms they uncover when they flap their pectoral fins along the bottom. Some are able to eat hard-shelled mollusks and crustaceans.
Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore , Eats non-insect arthropods, Molluscivore )
In their benthic (on the bottom), warm, usually shallow-water habitat, stingarees affect the populations of prey animals such as invertebrates and small fishes. They in turn are eaten by larger fish and humans.
Ray spines, some of them likely belonging to urolophids, have been found embedded in the mouths of many sharks. The great hammerhead Sphyrna lewini, in particular, appears to specialize in eating stingrays. They use their hammer-shaped heads to knock a ray to the bottom, and then pin the ray, once again with its head, pivoting around to bite the ray’s disc until the ray succumbs and can be eaten. In addition to their defensive venomous sting, most stingarees have cryptic coloring that blends in with the sandy or rocky bottom. Some researchers describe stingarees as almost impossible to find unless they move.
- sharks (Chondrichthyes)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Rays perceive and interact with their environment using sensory channels common to many vertebrates: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Rays also belong to a group of fishes, the elasmobranchs, whose electrical sensitivity seems to exceed that of all other animals. Elasmobranch fishes are equipped with ampullae of Lorenzini, electroreceptor organs that contain receptor cells and canals leading to pores in the animal’s skin. Sharks and rays can detect the electrical patterns created by nerve conduction, muscular contraction, and even the ionic difference between a body (i.e. of prey) and water. In lab experiments, members of the family Urolophidae changed their feeding location according to artificially induced changes in the electrical field around them. Other experiments have demonstrated that cartilaginous fishes use electrosensory information not only to locate prey, but also for orientation and navigation based on the electrical fields created by the interaction between water currents and the earth’s magnetic field. Although some rays can produce an electric shock to defend themselves or stun prey, members of the family Urolophidae cannot. They are able, however, to inflict a venomous sting with their tail spine in defense.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical ; electric ; magnetic
Members of the family Urolophidae, like other rays and their shark relatives, employ a reproductive strategy that involves investing large amounts of energy into relatively few young over a lifetime. Once sexually mature, stingarees have only one litter per year, usually bearing two to four young. Since few young are produced, it is important that they survive, and to this end rays are born at a large size, able to feed and fend for themselves much like an adult. Rays develop from egg to juvenile inside the mother’s uterus, sometimes to almost half their adult size. In this system, called aplacental uterine viviparity, developing embryos receive most of their nutriment from a milky, organically rich substance secreted by the mother’s uterine lining. An embryo absorbs this substance, called histotroph, by ingestion, or through its skin or other specialized structures. Researchers have found that in some rays, the stomach and spiral intestine are among the first organs to develop and function, so that the embryo can digest the uterine “milk.” Rays’ eggs are small and insufficient to support the embryos until they are born, although the first stage of development does happen inside tertiary egg envelopes that enclose each egg along with egg jelly. The embryo eventually absorbs the yolk sac and stalk and the histotroph provides it with nutrition. Development in the uterus usually takes about three months.
Little specific information regarding lifespans in Urolophidae was found, but in general rays, like their relatives the sharks, grow and mature slowly and are long-lived.
Only a few species of elasmobranchs have been observed during courtship and mating. However, stingarees have a system that involves internal fertilization, so it can logically be inferred that mating communication between male and female must happen to an extent that allows the male to insert at least one of his two claspers (male reproductive organs that are modifications of the pelvic fins) into the female’s cloaca to deposit sperm. Elasmobranch fishes have relatively complex endocrine (hormonal) systems; based on knowledge of other vertebrates with similar systems, it is likely that females signal to males through chemical or behavioral cues to indicate when their hormonal state is appropriate for mating. In Urobatis jamaicensis researchers found that gland secretions seal the open groove on males’ claspers into a closed tube that protects semen from being diluted before it passes into the female. These secretions coagulate on contact with sea water, help transport sperm into the female, and provide lubrication for clasper insertion.
Pregnancy in at least some urolophids lasts about three months, generally spanning some period in the spring, summer, and fall. It may take up to two years, however, for the egg follicle to accumulate enough yolk for ovulation (release of an egg to be fertilized) as in the case of Urobatis halleri. This means that at least some stingarees may have litters only once every two years, but it is likely that other groups within the family give birth on a yearly cycle. Within any given group of rays, individuals appear to go through mating, gestation, and parturition (birth) at the same time as all the other females in the group. Stingarees usually bear between two and four young at a time, after nourishing the embryos with milky fluid (histotroph) secreted by the uterus (see Development for a description of this system, called aplacental uterine viviparity). In some groups the epithelium, or wall, of the uterus is modified to form trophonemata, elongated villi that extend into the uterine cavity to provide greater surface area for respiratory exchange and histotroph excretion. This advanced system of nourishing young inside the uterus can produce offspring that are relatively large at birth (see Development). According to one investigator, a young ray is rolled up like a cigar during birth, which, along with the lubricating histotroph, facilitates the birth of such proportionally large young. The young ray then unrolls and swims away. Likewise, sting-bearing young are able to pass out of the mother’s body without stinging her because their stings are encased in a pliable sheath that sloughs off after birth.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous
No reported evidence of post-birth parental care in Urolophidae was found. After such extended nurturing inside their mothers’ bodies, young rays come into the sea quite able to feed and fend for themselves (see Development and Reproduction).
Parental Investment: female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage
Specimens with Sequences:233
Specimens with Barcodes:195
Species With Barcodes:29
One species in the Australian genus Urolophus is listed as near threatened. It lives in an area of intense fishing pressure, and females often abort embryos when captured. These factors, along with low fecundity (they bear only two young at a time), making it vulnerable to human activity. Other urolophids, sharing these characteristics, may become threatened in the future.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Stingarees can cause serious wounds with their tail spines. The serrated spine tip can be difficult to remove without surgery if it breaks off in the wound. Because they tend to occupy shallow water and are often colored to blend in with the bottom, they are a hazard to waders. Some fishermen walk with a “stingray shuffle” to make the rays swim away without stepping on them and getting stung.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings, venomous )
Stingarees are seldom used commercially even though large numbers are frequently caught in nets, but several species have edible flesh. Some are reported to be “chewy unless prepared properly.” Native peoples in many parts of the family’s range have used ray spines for spear tips, daggers, or whips.
Positive Impacts: food
The Urolophidae are a family of rays in the order Myliobatiformes, commonly known as stingarees or round stingrays; this family formerly included the genera Urobatis and Urotrygon of the Americas, which are presently recognized as forming their own family Urotrygonidae. Stingarees are found in the Indo-Pacific region, with the greatest diversity off Australia. They are sluggish, bottom-dwelling fish that have been recorded from shallow waters close to shore to deep waters over the upper continental slope. Measuring between 15 and 80 cm (5.9 and 31.5 in) long, these rays have oval to diamond-shaped pectoral fin discs and relatively short tails that terminate in leaf-shaped caudal fins, and may also have small dorsal fins and lateral skin folds. Most are smooth-skinned, and some have ornate dorsal color patterns.
Stingarees feed on or near the sea floor, consuming small invertebrates and occasionally bony fishes. They are aplacental viviparous, meaning their embryos emerge from eggs inside the uterus, and are sustained to term first by yolk and later by maternally produced histotroph ("uterine milk"). As far is known, the gestation period lasts around a year and litter sizes tend to be small. Stingarees have one or two relatively large, venomous stinging spines on their tail for defense, with which they can inflict a painful wound on humans. Generally, stingarees have no economic value. Some species form a substantial component of the bycatch of commercial trawl fisheries.
Taxonomy and phylogeny
German biologists Johannes Müller and Jakob Henle created the genus Urolophus in 1837; in their subsequent 1838–41 Systematische Beschreibung der Plagiostomen, the pair created the genus Trygonoptera and also made the first reference to the urolophids as a group. The family has traditionally also included the genera Urobatis and Urotrygon of the Americas; John McEachran, Katherine Dunn, and Tsutomu Miyake moved them to their own family, Urotrygonidae, in 1996.
Recent phylogenetic analyses have confirmed the urolophids and related taxa belong to the order Myliobatiformes; they were once placed in the order Rajiformes with the guitarfishes and skates. Based on morphological characters, John McEachran and Neil Aschliman determined in a 2004 study that the urolophids formed a clade with the giant stingaree (Plesiobatis daviesi), and that the two were basal to a clade containing all other myliobatiform families except Platyrhinidae, Hexatrygonidae, and Zanobatidae. They proposed including Plesiobatis in the family Urolophidae, and classifying the family within the superfamily Urolophoidea within Myliobatiformes.
Distribution and habitat
The center of biodiversity for stingarees is Australia, where all 6 Trygonoptera and 15 of the 22 Urolophus species are endemic. A number of species are also found in the Coral Sea, a few in the Malay Archipelago, and one (the sepia stingray, U. aurantiacus) in the northwestern Pacific. Stingarees are bottom-dwelling rays that can be found from very shallow, inshore habitats such as estuaries and bays, to a depth of 420 m (1,380 ft) well offshore on the upper continental shelf. Some are extremely common; one study in the coastal waters of southwestern Australia found that the four most abundant stingaree species constituted over 17% of the biomass of benthic fishes.
Stingarees are modestly sized, ranging from 30 to 80 cm (12 to 31 in) long. They have greatly enlarged pectoral fins fused to the head, forming a disc that may be nearly circular, to oval, to rhomboid in shape. The snout is usually short and does not protrude much from the disc. The eyes are placed atop the disc and usually fairly large; immediately posterior are teardrop-shaped spiracles (auxiliary respiratory openings). There is a curtain of skin between the nostrils, formed from the fusion of the anterior nasal flaps, that reaches the mouth. There are varying numbers of papillae (nipple-like structures) on the floor of the mouth and sometimes also on the outside of the lower jaw. The teeth in both jaws are small, with rhomboid bases and blunt to pointed crowns; they are arranged with a quincunx pattern and number less than 50 rows in either jaw. The five pairs of gill slits are short and located beneath the disc.
The pelvic fins are small with rounded margins; claspers are found on males. The tail is shorter than to about equal to the disc, either flattened or thickly oval in cross-section, and ends in a leaf-shaped, symmetrical caudal fin. One or two relatively large, serrated stinging spines are placed atop the tail about halfway along its length. Some species have a small dorsal fin immediately before the spine, and/or lateral skin folds running along either side of the tail. All species lack dermal denticles (except for the New Ireland stingaree, U. armatus). Stingarees are generally shades of yellow, green, brown or gray above and pale below; some species are plain, while others are adorned with spots, rings, blotches, lines, or more complex patterns.
Biology and ecology
Stingarees are slow swimmers that can often be found lying still on the bottom, sometimes partly or completely buried in sediment. They are predators of small benthic and burrowing invertebrates such as crustaceans and polychaete worms, and also occasionally small bony fishes. Studies have shown that stingarees that overlap in range differ in their diet composition, which likely serves to reduce competition. For example, off southwestern Australia the masked stingaree (T. personata) and western shovelnose stingaree (T. mucosa) feed mostly on different types of polychaetes, while the sparsely-spotted stingaree (U. paucimaculatus) and lobed stingaree (U. lobatus) feed mostly on different types of crustaceans.
Like other myliobatiforms, stingarees have an viviparous mode of reproduction in which the embryos hatch within the uterus and are nourished first by yolk, and later by histotroph ("uterine milk") produced by the mother and likely delivered through specialized extensions of the uterine epithelium called "trophonemata". For those species whose life histories have been investigated, the gestation period lasts 10–12 months and the litter size is small, no more than one or two in some cases. The small litter is likely due to the relatively large size of stingaree pups, which measure around half the maximum size at birth.
Though generally innocuous towards humans, when disturbed stingarees can inflict a painful wound with their stout, venomous stings. Species differ in temperament; the sparse-spotted stingaree (U. paucimaculatus) is reportedly more aggressive, and the spotted stingaree (U. gigas) less so. When threatened, the crossback stingaree (U. cruciatus) raises its tail over its disc like a scorpion. Some species of stingarees are regularly caught incidentally in bottom trawls by commercial fisheries. They are generally discarded due to their small size, though some may be processed into fishmeal. Stingarees caught from shallow water likely have relatively high chances of survival, but of concern is their tendency to abort any gestating young when captured and handled.
- Müller, J. and F.G.J. Henle (1837). "Gattungen der Haifische und Rochen nach einer von ihm mit Hrn. Henle unternommenen gemeinschaftlichen Arbeit über die Naturgeschichte der Knorpelfische". Bericht Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1837: 111–118.
- Müller, J. and F.G.J. Henle (1838–1841). Systematische Beschreibung der Plagiostomen. Veit und Comp. p. 173–174.
- McEachran, J.D., K.A. Dunn, and T. Miyake (1996). "Interrelationships of the batoid fishes (Chondrichthyes: Batoidea)". In Stiassny, M.L.J., L.R. Parenti, and G.D. Johnson. Interrelationships of Fishes. Academic Press. pp. 63–84. ISBN 978-0-12-670950-6.
- Nelson, J.S. (2006). Fishes of the World (fourth ed.). John Wiley. pp. 69–82. ISBN 0-471-25031-7.
- McEachran, J.D. and N. Aschliman (2004). "Phylogeny of Batoidea". In Carrier, J.C., J.A. Musick, and M.R. Heithaus. Biology of Sharks and Their Relatives. CRC Press. pp. 79–114.
- Séret, B. and P.R. Last (2003). "Description of four new stingarees of the genus Urolophus (Batoidea: Urolophidae) from the Coral Sea, south-west Pacific". Cybium 27 (4): 307–320.
- Last, P.R. and J.D. Stevens (2009). Sharks and Rays of Australia (second ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 398–428. ISBN 0-674-03411-2.
- Last, P.R. and L.J.V. Compagno (1999). "Myliobatiformes: Urolophidae". In Carpenter, K.E. and V.H. Niem. FAO identification guide for fishery purposes: The living marine resources of the Western Central Pacific. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. pp. 1469–1476. ISBN 92-5-104302-7.
- Platell, M.E., I.C. Potter, and K.R. Clarke (1998). "Resource partitioning by four species of elasmobranchs (Batoidea: Urolophidae) in coastal waters of temperate Australia". Marine Biology 131: 719–734. doi:10.1007/s002270050363.
- Fowler, H.W. (1941). "Contributions to the biology of the Philippine Archipelago and adjacent regions". Bulletin of the United States National Museum 100 (13): 1–879.
- White, W.T. and I.C. Potter (2005). "Reproductive biology, size and age compositions and growth of the batoid Urolophus paucimaculatus, including comparisons with other species of the Urolophidae". Marine and Freshwater Research 56 (1): 101–110. doi:10.1071/mf04225.
- Michael, S.W. (1993). Reef Sharks & Rays of the World. Sea Challengers. p. 91. ISBN 0-930118-18-9.
- Kyne, P.M. and P.R. Last (2006). "Trygonoptera testacea". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
- Trinnie, F.I., W.T. White, and T.I. Walker (2006). "Urolophus paucimaculatus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
To request an improvement, please leave a comment on the page. Thank you!