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Often confused for sharks, shovelnose rays are closely related to their cousins, looking like a combination of your traditional flat ray and the rounder bottom dwelling sharks. It’s the prominent dorsal fins of these graceful bottom dwellers that causes the confusion amongst reef goers. 

Shovelnose ray showing dorsal fins at Heron Island

There are many similarities, and they don’t just stop at the fins. This comes from being part of the subclass of elasmobranchs, where sharks and rays are close cousins. They share many common features including a cartilage skeleton and unique tough skin (dermal denticles).   

The telltale sign though is their gills. If you can’t see them from the top or sides, if you’re willing to get that close to look, chances are it is a ray. Rays have a distinct way of breathing without getting sand through their gills. An essential adaptation for an animal that spends so much time resting on the bottom.

If you look closely behind its eyes, you’ll find a hole on either side. No, they're not ears, but are in fact spiracles, which act like pumps. They draw in water from above to pass across the gills. If you do encounter a ray passing above you, you will see these gills on their underside.   

Shovelnose ray from above showing spiracles behind the eyes

Ocean Safari logged a sighting of this beautiful creature last week using the Eye on the Reef app. If you are lucky enough to have a similar encounter, please be sure to let us know.   

Updated 8 May 2023
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