Ashley Breault | Marketing Intern | Ocean Studies and Communications Student at University of New England
When looking into our Close Encounters tank you might see something that resembles a stingray. Flat body, wing-like fins, and a whip-like tail – sure sounds like a stingray to me! Well, these familiar looking fish are actually skates — Little Skates, or Leucoraja erinacea, to be exact.
Little skates are small skates that live in the shallow waters (90 meters) from Nova Scotia, Canada down to North Carolina. They can grow to be up to 21 inches long and can weigh up to 2 pounds. They have thorny spines that vary in location and size along their back. Because of their physical characteristics, they are often confused with one of the relatives, the Winter skate. Little skates have a varied diet that consists of crustaceans like crabs, mollusks like clams, and small fish. Unlike their cousin the Winter skate, they are more active during the day. Unfortunately, these skates are harvested as lobster bait and are often caught as by-catch, the unintentional catching of an unwanted fish.
But what is the difference between a skate and a ray? There actually isn’t all that much that is different about the two classifications. Skates, rays, and even sharks are all apart of a family of fish called elasmobranchs, meaning they are cartilaginous fish. Cartilaginous fish have skeletons made of cartilage instead of bones and many have openings called spiracles on the tops of their heads. These spiracles allow animals like skates to sit on the ocean floor and still intake oxygenated water from above them, which allows them to live without breathing in the sand or mud. The scales on cartilaginous fish are very different from those found on other types of fish. These scales are called placoid scales, or dermal denticles, and actually look more like little teeth that cover the fish’s body.
There are differences between skates and rays though. Unlike rays, skates do not have venomous spines in their tails. Instead, skate tails are usually shorter and thicker than a ray’s tail. Rays also tend to be larger in size than skates. Another difference between the two is their reproductive strategies. Rays have live births whereas skates lay eggs. These eggs are often called ‘mermaid purses’ because they look like little brown bags. In these eggs the baby skate will develop and grow until it hatches several months later. For Little skates, the babies are only 3-4 inches long and look like mini versions of their parents.
To learn more about these fun little skates, be sure to check out our daily schedule and plan to attend a Close Encounters program next time you’re in the Center!