The Pink Whipray aka Tahitian Stingray Pateobatis fai (formerly Himantura fai).
The pink whipray, aka Tahitian Stingray, is a large stingray, around a metre wing-tip to wing-tip, often found in shallow bays and lagoons. It’s preferred habitat appears to be sandy or sand and coral rubble seabeds. It occurs widely across the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, from West Africa to Western Polynesia. Like all stingrays they do have a venomous barb near the end of their tail. The venom is not generally considered dangerous to humans, but it can be painful. Equally the barb is long and sharp, so is capable of inflicting a nasty wound. Pink whiprays are generally not at all aggressive, and so the risk is mostly if the animal feels threatened, thus chasing or cornering it is not a good idea. Sometimes they can be seen swimming with the tail raised almost vertical, possibly as a warning.
Pink whiprays feed mostly on crustaceans; crabs, prawns and shrimps; but will also take molluscs. In some locations they will gather in feeding groups in very shallow water (less than one metre). This has created a tourist attraction, especially in parts of French Polynesia.
Like other stingrays, pink whiprays are oviviparous (or aplacental viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young but there is no placenta attached to the developing embryos). At first the developing embryos feed on an attached yolk sac. During the final stages of development the yolk is fully absorbed, and the developing young are fed by drinking a lipid-rich ‘milk’ from the mother’s uterus wall. This uterine milk produces a massive, final growth spurt before the pups are born. Like many elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) multiple paternity is common in stingrays. Studies on the round stingray (Urobatis halleri) by Lyons et al found that around 90% of round stingray litters had multiple fathers. This is in part due to females having two uterine chambers and being able to store sperm long after copulation. Studies on the thornback ray found that four litters were each sired by between 4-6 males (Chevelot et al).
Origins of its scientific name
The scientific name of the pink whipray is Pateobatis fai. How did it get that name? The specific name, fai, is the local word for stingray in much of French Polynesia, where these rays often congregate in lagoons. Until relatively recently it was known as Himantura fai, so if you own older fish guide books (as I do) this is the name you’re likely to see. This is also the name given to it when it was first described by ichthyologists David Starr Jordan and Alvin Seale in 1906. In 2016 the classification of species and genus within the stingray family (Dasyatidae) was given a major review and overhaul, based on new morphological information and genetics data (Last, Naylor and Manjaji-Matsumoto, 2016). In this study a new genus, Pateobatis, was created and the old Himantura fai was shuffled across and renamed. So who were the guys who originally described this species. Alvin Searle had been a student of David Starr Jordan at Stanford University in California. After graduating he headed off to Alaska, in the late 1890s, where he studied salmon and got swept up in the gold rush happening then. He then became Curator of Fishes at the prestigious Bishop Museum in Hawaii. In this role he undertook a great many field trips across the South Pacific, collecting and identifying fish. He became recognised as the World’s leading expert on south Pacific fish species at that time. His co-author, and former tutor, David Starr Jordan, had risen to become President of Stanford University. Jordan’s career was rather less glorious however. While maintaining his career as an ichthyologist and the more bureaucratic role of University President, he developed a strong interest in eugenics. He was a proponent of racial segregation and ‘racial purity’, ideas that had a strong following among many intellectuals around that time. He was atrustee of the innocuous-sounding Human Betterment Foundation that advocated for human sterilisation to prevent ‘degradation’ of the gene pool. Paradoxically, he was anti-war and president of the World Peace Foundation. However his reasoning against war was simply that the ‘best’ of the gene pool were killed, leaving an ‘inferior’ gene pool to breed. A good example of the right idea for all the wrong reasons. As a marine biologist I naturally assume that this field attracts only good guys. maybe not always.
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Last, P. R.; Naylor, G. J.; Manjaji-Matsumoto, B. M. (2016). A revised classification of the family Dasyatidae (Chondrichthyes: Myliobatiformes) based on new morphological and molecular insights. Zootaxa. 4139(3): 345-368., available online at https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4139.3.2
Lyons K, Chabot CL, Mull CG, Paterson Holder CN, Lowe CG. Who’s My Daddy? Considerations for the influence of sexual selection on multiple paternity in elasmobranch mating systems. Ecol Evol. 2017;7(15):5603-5612. Published 2017 Jun 15. doi:10.1002/ece3.3086
Malia Chevolot, Jim R. Ellis, Adriaan D. Rijnsdorp, Wytze T. Stam, Jeanine L. Olsen, Multiple Paternity Analysis in the Thornback Ray Raja clavata L., Journal of Heredity, Volume 98, Issue 7, November 2007, Pages 712–715, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhered/esm077