Ocean photographer Kristian Laine was freediving and taking pictures in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when he came across what can only be described as a marine unicorn: a manta ray with a pink belly instead of its usual white coloring. It’s the only pink manta ray that we know of and scientists still aren’t sure why it’s colored like this.
This isn’t the first time that the pink manta ray — named Inspector Clouseau after the bumbling detective in the Pink Panther movies — has been spotted. In fact, Clouseau is a sort of local celebrity, especially among marine biologists. The 3.3-meter (11-foot) pink ray was first identified in 2015, but it’s only been spotted around 10 times since then.
Although Clouseau is rather camera shy, scientists affiliated with Project Manta have confirmed that the ray’s rosy coloring is real, and not some photoshopped fake as some have speculated on social media.
Like whale sharks, manta rays are filter feeders that scoop up plankton and krill through their large toothless mouth, which acts as a sort of sieve. The rays’ wingspan can easily reach several meters, allowing them to swim very fast. Occasionally, you can see them leap out of the water, landing with a loud slap. Unlike stingrays, manta rays don’t have a sharp barb, so they’re safe to swim, snorkel, or dive with.
Initially, scientists thought that the unique pink hue of the ray may be due to some skin infection or diet. Pink flamingos, for instance, get their famous coloring due to their diet of crustaceans. A 2016 biopsy from Clouseau, however, showed that the animal’s coloring has nothing to do with an infection or the food it eats.
Instead, the leading theory now is that Clouseau has a very rare genetic mutation, perhaps linked to a condiction called erythrism, which causes some animals’ skin to be reddish or pink. Similar genetic mutations are responsible for albinism, the condition that causes some animals (and even people) to lack any pigmentation in their skin or hair, appearing completely white.
Normally, reef mantas come in three color patterns: all-black, all-white, or black-and-white. The latter pattern is the most common and involves countershading, whereby the ray’s back is black and the belly is white in order to better blend with its surroundings and avoid predation.
Clouseau’s pink skin, however, shouldn’t be a threat to its existence. The reef manta is massive in size and can weigh up to a ton, and there are few predators if any that can take it on.