Manta rays are some of the most bizarre and impressive creatures on Earth. Seemingly gliding through the oceans, these uniquely adapted creatures are also under threat, and still too poorly understood. Now, a new project that digitizes manta rays wants to help us understand them better, and maybe even devise new ways to protect them.
The ancient Peruvian Moche people worshipped the sea and its animals, their art often depicting manta rays as idols. For centuries, sailors also feared manta rays, believing that they were strong and dangerous, capable of pulling ships out to sea and killing sailors. But attitudes started to change in the 1970s, when divers in California found them to be placid, almost peaceful creatures that posed little threat to humans.
Nowadays, the creatures are threatened by overfishing and pollution, with several species being listed as vulnerable. The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), a non-profit working to save ocean giants, has been studying manta rays since 2016, especially through its Florida Manta Project. For MMF members, it was striking to see just how easy it is for manta rays to get trapped in fishing nets.
“As the first group to study south Florida’s manta rays, we were incredibly surprised to learn that this population is composed exclusively of juvenile manta rays. We were also disheartened to see so many mantas entangled in fishing line and with injuries from boat propellers. Continued research, mitigation of threats, and increased public education are crucial for the conservation of Florida’s manta rays,” explains Jessica Pate, Lead Scientist for the Florida Manta Project.
Florida is home to a large seasonal aggregation of adult manta rays and also serves as an important manta ray nursery for juveniles– now, one such juvenile called Skye has been turned digital. Using collected footage of Skye as well as measurement data, MMF researchers recreated the manta ray in its entirety, everything from head to tail to gills, including the details and texture, and even its scars from a boat propeller injury. The model was rendered for animation, depicting Skye’s swimming motion.
It’s not the first time something like this took shape. Previously, the MMF teamed up with Digital Life Project and ANGARI Foundation to produce a 3D model of a hammerhead shark, which has been used for research and education purposes. Similarly, the manta ray model can provide exciting opportunities not just to share awareness of these creatures, but also to help researchers understand more about their health and how they could be protected from entanglement in nets.
Duncan Irschick, Director of Digital Life, is excited about the possibilities this manta ray model can provide.
“This was an amazing collaboration that has resulted in a one-of-a-kind scientific and educational tool that we hope can be shared widely. The 3D model can be used to study energetics of movement, as well as body condition and health in manta rays, and therefore helps preserve these remarkable animals.”
Skye measures 2.5 meters (8 feet) long and is a juvenile male manta ray. The juvenile population of mantas has been discovered relatively recently in south Florida and is being studied as the federal government draws up plans for protecting the species.
“This area is super important to protect because it can be a refuge for manta populations around the world,” said Jessica Pate, research scientist with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, who pioneered the study of the South Florida population.
“Mantas are just really cool. They have the largest brains of any fish. We think they’re highly intelligent. They have social behaviors. One of our researchers found females can form social bonds that last for years.”
For now at least, Skye is the only accurate digital 3D model of a manta ray. Hopefully, researchers and science communicators will put the model to good use.