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Barry Peters via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10 Stunning Facts About Stingrays

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Barry Peters via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’re unsure about your stance on stingrays, we don’t blame you. They’re often portrayed as deadly, cold-blooded creatures who wield their venomous tails like a murder weapon. They're also oddly adorable. The best way to form an opinion is by learning a little more about the mysterious stingray. Here are 10 facts about these saucer-like creatures of the deep.

1. STINGRAYS ARE FISH. 

Roberto Machado Noavia Getty Images

Though they may not resemble the finned friends in your fish tank at home, stingrays belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs. There are around 200 different stingray species in total.

2. STINGRAYS ARE CLOSELY RELATED TO SHARKS.

Qldian via iStock

Stingrays and sharks belong to the same group of cartilaginous fish. This means that instead of bones, they’re supported by skeletons of cartilage. Like sharks, stingrays use sensors called ampullae of Lorenzini to sense the electrical signals emitted by their prey. These sensors are located around their mouths, and they compensate for the stingray's poorly-placed eyes.

3. STINGRAYS HAVE BEEN AROUND FOR A LONG TIME.

Kyle Durigan via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fossil records of the first rays date back to the Lower Jurassic Period (about 150 million years ago). By the Paleocene Era just 100 million years later, all major taxa of rays had been established. Stingray fossils are hard to come by due to their lack of bones, and some of the only evidence they’ve left behind are scales and teeth. 

4. STINGRAY VENOM WAS USED AS AN ANESTHETIC.

Amit Chattopadhyayvia Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0 


While painful, stingray venom isn’t usually deadly unless victims are stung in the chest or abdomen. In ancient Greece, venom was actually extracted from stingray spines for the purpose of being used as an anesthetic by dentists.

5. THE BIGGEST STINGRAY WEIGHS NEARLY 800 POUNDS.

Acquarious Sea Tours via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Short-tailed stingrays, known as Dasyatis brevicaudata, are found off the southern coasts of Africa and Australia. They can reach 770 pounds in weight and grow 14 feet in length. The giant freshwater stingray (Himantura chaophraya) grows to be quite monstrous as well. In March, fisherman in Thailand’s Mae Klong River caught a 14-foot stingray that weighed between 600 and 800 pounds. It was one of the largest freshwater fish ever captured.

6. STINGRAYS AREN'T NORMALLY AGGRESSIVE. 

Elena Kalis via Flickr //CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While a run-in with a stingray has the potential to be deadly, they normally act kind and gentle around humans. It’s only when a stingray feels threatened that divers have a reason to worry. Most stingrays attack when a diver is swimming directly over or in front of a ray, blocking its escape route. Accidentally stepping on a ray in shallow water is also a fast way to get stung. Expert divers shuffle their feet when entering the ocean to avoid stepping directly on a stingray’s back.

7. STINGRAY JAWS CAN CRUSH MOLLUSK SHELLS.

VirtualWolf via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Even though they’re cartilaginous, stingray jaws are strong enough to crush rock-hard clam shells. The calcified cartilage in their jaws is several layers thick, and the softer cores of their jaw elements are supported by hollow, mineralized struts. This makes stingray jaws strong and lightweight at the same time.

8. SOME STINGRAYS MOVE LIKE A WAVE, OTHERS LIKE A BIRD.

SnapperCR29 via Flicker// CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Most stingrays swim through the ocean by undulating their bodies in a wave-like motion. Others will flap their sides up and down, giving them the appearance of “flying” through the ocean like a bird.

9. STINGRAYS ARE GOOD AT HIDING.

Jeff Kraus via Flickr// CC BY-NC 2.0

Next time you go for a walk through the ocean’s shallow waters, remember that stingrays spend most of their time hiding in the sand. Their mottled skin, ranging from a light sandy tone to a dark brown, gives them the perfect camouflage for chilling out on the sea floor until a tasty meal comes their way. It also keeps them hidden from predators of their own like killer whales and hammerhead sharks. To add an extra element of protection, stingrays will stir up sand with their wings while burying themselves head-first.

10. STINGRAYS ARE BORN FULLY-FORMED.

Little Peppercorn via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When baby stingrays are born they look like miniature versions of their parents. They are fully-proportioned and naturally good swimmers from birth. This helps them find food on their own right away, though mothers still stick around to provide protection until around age three or so. Did we mention they also look like adorable raviolis?

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
Original image
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Animals
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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