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Marine Life & Conservation

Creature Feature: Cownose Ray

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In this series, the Shark Trust will be sharing amazing facts about different species of sharks and what you can do to help protect them.

This month we’re showing off one of the lesser-known rays: the Cownose Ray, so-called due to the two lobes on the top of their head. When viewed from above, these lobes resemble a cow’s nose.

The Cownose Ray is a species of eagle ray (which also includes the Bull Ray, Banded Eagle Ray and others). They are often mistaken for sharks from the beach, due to the tips of their fins sticking out of the water (resembling the dorsal fin of a shark).

Typically, brown-backed, with a whitish or yellowish belly, it’s the Cownose Ray’s shape that is the key identifier; with its broad head, wide-set eyes, and pair of lobes on its subrostral (in front of the “face”) fin.

They typically feed on clams, oysters and other invertebrates. Preferring to feed in early morning or late afternoon, when waves are calm, and visibility is good. They uncover their prey by stirring up the sand and sediment with their wings. Once located, Cownose Rays can create a vacuum with their mouths to suck up their prey from the seabed. They have a set of concrete-like dental plates which are perfect for crushing shells . In addition to their strong mouths, the Cownose Ray also have a few defensive abilities too. They are stingrays and have a barb on the base of their tails to defend themselves, which produces a toxin that injures the aggressor.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Social creatures, they typically swim in groups. They also migrate extremely long distances, often in schools of up to 10,000. Their migration is from the Gulf of Mexico to Trinidad, Venezuela and Brazil. Atlantic migration consists of the rays moving north in late spring and moving south in late autumn. Even though scientists can track their migration well (even from airplanes as the schools can be seen from the sky!), the reason for their migration is still a mystery. It’s unknown if it’s due to feeding or a pre-mating activity

They reach sexual maturity at 6 to 7 years and can live up to ~21 years. Females give birth to live young, following a11-12 months gestation period.

They are listed as Vulnerable, due to extensive overfishing – mainly in the Caribbean. Whilst the meat from Cownose Rays is not in-demand and thus they are not targeted by largescale operations. They are overfished in the Caribbean and along the Venezuelan coast – with declines in the population of up to 49% in the last 43 years.

SCIENTIFIC NAME:  Rhinoptera bonasus

  • FAMILY:  Rhinopteridae
  • MAXIMUM SIZE:  ~110 cm wide
  • DIET:  Clams, oysters, hard clams, crustaceans and other invertebrates
  • DISTRIBUTION:  Western Atlantic from southern New England to northern Florida (USA) and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, migrating to Trinidad, Venezuela, and Brazil.
  • HABITAT:  Brackish and marine habitats, usually in shallow waters but have been found up to a depth of 60 m.
  • CONSERVATION STATUS: Vulnerable

Cownose Ray Activity Bundle

Discover more with the Cownose Ray Activity Bundle. Brought to you by award-winning outdoor education provider – The Great Out-Tours.

Created for children and adults in care homes, these bundles of fun will provide hours of entertainment.

Wordsearches, jigsaws, arts and crafts, educational videos, a family quiz and so much more. All jammed packed into this bundle for just £1, with 15p going to the Shark Trust!

► Find out more about our shark bundles

For more amazing facts about sharks and what you can do to help the Shark Trust protect them visit the Shark Trust website by clicking here.

Header Image: David Clode on Unsplash

The Shark Trust is the leading UK-based shark conservation charity. The team works globally to safeguard the future of sharks, and their close cousins, the skates and rays. Engaging with a global network of scientists, policymakers, conservation professionals, businesses and supporters, to further shark conservation. Established in 1997 to provide a voice for UK sharks, the Shark Trust has an ever-growing number of passionate supporters. And together we're creating positive change for sharks around the world. Want to join us and help protect sharks around the world? Click here! www.sharktrust.org

Marine Life & Conservation

Beach litter going down, but plastic still polluting UK shores

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  • Marine Conservation Society reveals results of 2021 Great British Beach Clean
  • On average, litter found on UK beaches dropping year on year
  • 75% of beach litter made of plastic or polystyrene
  • An average of just 3 single-use plastic bags found on UK beaches

The Marine Conservation Society’s annual Great British Beach Clean, which took place from 17th – 26th September this year, saw 6,176 volunteers head outside to clear litter from their local streets, parks and over 55,000 metres of UK beaches.

A total of 5064.8kg of litter was collected and recorded over the week by dedicated volunteers and the results are in.

In positive news, the average litter recorded per 100 metres is dropping year on year across the UK. This year, an average of 385 items were found, dropping from averages of 425 in 2020, and 558 in 2019.

Cotton bud sticks moved out of the UK’s top ten most common rubbish items this year, with the number of plastic cotton bud sticks collected being the lowest in the Great British Beach Clean’s 28-year history. This year, an average of 6 plastic cotton bud sticks were found, dropping from 15 in 2020. These decreasing figures are a positive indication that policies are working.

Scotland was the first UK country to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic cotton bud sticks in October 2019. England followed suit last year, introducing a ban on single-use plastic straws, cotton bud sticks and stirrers. It’s likely that the drop in numbers found on beaches is, at least in part, as a result of these policies over the last couple of years. The Welsh Government is yet to introduce a ban on plastic cotton bud sticks.

Numbers of single-use plastic bags on beaches have continued to drop, from a high of 13 on average in 2013, down to just 3 in 2021.

Plastic pieces remain the most prevalent form of litter on UK beaches, with 75% of all litter collected being plastic or polystyrene, with an average of 112 pieces found for every 100 metres of UK beach surveyed.

Top five most common litter items on UK beaches (average per 100m)

  1. Plastic and polystyrene pieces (111.7)
  2. Cigarette stubs (27.8)
  3. Crisp and sweet packets, lolly sticks etc (25.9)
  4. Plastic caps and lids (15.5)
  5. String/cord (15.3)

With so much beach litter being made from plastic, the Marine Conservation Society is continuing to campaign for ambitious single-use plastics policies which would phase out the manufacture and sale of plastic products in the UK.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society: “UK governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy just won’t cut it anymore. While we’re seeing a downward trend in litter on beaches, we’re still seeing huge volumes of plastic washing up on our shores.

“A shocking 75% of all the litter we collected from UK beaches this year was made of plastic or polystyrene, so it’s clear what we need to focus our attention on. Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of items is the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment.”

Lizzie Prior, Beachwatch Manager at the Marine Conservation Society: The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking at a personal, local and national level are working. But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action.”

The Marine Conservation Society included PPE items on its survey form for the first time this year*, providing a baseline from which to understand the impact and presence of face masks and gloves in the future. Levels of PPE found this year were similar to 2020, when masks were made mandatory across the UK. 32% of UK beaches cleaned found PPE litter though masks ranked  59 out of 121 for most common litter items.  Inland, for the charity’s Source to Sea Litter Quest, 80% of litter picks found PPE in 2021, in comparison to 69% found in 2020.

Read more about the Great British Beach Clean, and the Marine Conservation Society’s year-round Beachwatch programme on the charity’s website: www.mcsuk.org.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Endangered Mako Sharks win vital protection

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The Shark Trust are celebrating this week. After many years of hard work with their Shark League Colleagues, the team has been successful in securing protection for the North Atlantic Short Fin Mako Sharks. This hard-fought ban on the catching of North Atlantic shortfin mako sharks was adopted this week by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). It is a giant step toward in reversing the decline of this seriously over-fished population.

“At long last, we have the basis for a game-changing rebuilding plan, but it won’t be successful if we take our eyes off the EU and their egregious intent to resume fishing a decade before rebuilding is predicted to begin,” said Ali Hood, Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust. “In this moment, however, we focus on the overwhelming chorus of concern that helped us reach this critical breakthrough. We’re deeply grateful for the ‘voices for makos’ – the continuous calls from conservationists, divers, scientists, aquarists, retailers, and elected representatives to protect this beleaguered shark.”

While the ban in initially in place for two years, this move shifts the emphasis of the debate and parties will now have to justify the reopening of the fishery of an Endangered shark.  The Shark Trust will be keeping a close eye on future discussions.

Makos are exceptionally vulnerable to over-fishing. These oceanic species are classified by the IUCN as globally Endangered and so this new ban on fishing them will help populations recover. Whilst the Shark Trust are delighted at this positive result, they will not be standing still and will both continue to safeguard Makos and fight for all the other endangered shark species.

The dive community, assisted by Shark League partner PADI AWARE Foundation, played their part in achieving this win, putting their many voices behind the Voice for Makos campaign. Together the Shark Trust and the dive community will raise awareness and share their love of sharks in the ongoing fight to protect them.

For further information on the work of the Shark Trust: www.sharktrust.org

For further information on the Shark League: www.sharkleague.org


Header Image: Jacob Brunetti

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