New cownose rays to be hand fed in Rocky Reef Exhibit

  • 19 April 2013 | Ann Kunz | Category: Species

William Mlambo and Ramini Naidoo train the rays to feed from the hand

For the first time in its history, uShaka Sea World will be introducing cownose rays (Rhinoptera javanica) to the public – in its Rocky Reef Exhibit later this month. In another first for an African aquarium, staff have taught the rays to accept hand-held food.

The cownose ray comes from the same family as the more familiar eagle ray and is classified as a cartilaginous fish.  

Six juvenile rays were handed over to uShaka Sea World after being caught by fishermen. Following a mandatory assessment by quarantine staff, they were found to be in good health, barring a few superficial wounds.

A cownose ray is helped to the pool's surface

The rays remained in quarantine until staff were certain they would be able to compete with other species in the exhibit. This included being able to accept food offered by divers. The rays are hand fed to ensure that they do not lose out to greedy, faster-swimming fish.

Says aquarist William Mlambo: “This was a slow process that started with staff dropping fish into the pool and allowing the rays to feed in their own time.” Over time a staff member was introduced to the pool to present food and the rays were encouraged to take it. This proved to be quite a challenge as the rays were naturally reluctant to feed in an unfamiliar way. 

Jerry Ntombela, principal caregiver of Nandi, a manta ray, designed a target so the food could be offered to the rays at a distance they were comfortable with. Since prawns are their favourite diet, the target was covered in prawns and held out for the rays, who readily fed from it.

William Mlambo and Ramini Naidoo prepare the rays' favourite food – prawns!

The rays were fed five times a day at different positions in the pool, and when it became clear that they associated the target with food regardless of where it was positioned or who was holding the target, different food sources were introduced. The target was slowly brought to the surface where eventually the rays started associating hands holding the target as hands offering food.

This slow and steady process has proven successful and uShaka Sea World staff are proud of their achievement, which is a first for any aquarium in Africa.  

When next you visit the Aquarium look out for these beautiful creatures gracing the Rocky Reef Exhibit.

Cownose rays are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

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