“Queen of Mantas” Dr Andrea Marshall was responsible for identifying the second-known species of manta ray, the giant Manta birostris. Now the famed scuba diver is hoping her team is closing in on definitive proof that there is a third branch of the family – off the coast of Florida.
This year Marshall and her Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) have linked up with a team of Georgia Aquarium researchers as they conducted their fifth year of study off the coast of Marineland, in the north-east of the state.
The researchers spent two weeks carrying out aerial surveys, collecting tissue samples to study the rays’ genetics and attaching satellite-tracking tags as the mantas moved north in search of cooler water.
Marshall believes that the tagging will provide useful information about the mantas’ migratory patterns and behaviour, and the genetics testing will help to prove or disprove her theory of a third species,
The marine field biologist first proposed the existence of a third species in the Atlantic/Caribbean in a scientific paper in 2009, stating that on the evidence available at the time there were clear differences between it and Manta birostris “including dissimilar denticle morphology and distribution, intermediary dentition and, most noticeably, differences in dorsal and ventral colouration.”
“National Geographic, the Waitt Foundation and the Georgia Aquarium are now funding a follow-up study – a multi-institution collaboration led by MMF – which will be completed by early next year,” Marshall told Divernet.
“We should at that stage have a definitive answer about what is going on.”
“The fieldwork being conducted in Florida is helping with this study but will also continue independently as a way to study the population there – which may be one of the first on this new species if it is indeed described officially.”
“Dr Andrea Marshall is one of the world’s leading authorities on manta rays and it’s great for Georgia Aquarium staff to be able to work side by side with her team at our field station site and make new discoveries about the significance of Florida as a habitat for these incredible animals,” said Dr Alistair Dove, Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium, the only US facility to house manta rays.
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