From May through October, anyone heading into Florida’s coastal waters is encouraged to do the “stingray shuffle”. This Frankenstein’s monster-like gait stirs the underwater sediments and frightens the bottom dwelling rays into taking off. No doubt this aquatic march is a Sand Dollar’s (Echinarachnius parma) worst nightmare.
The Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) is the most common ray found along Florida’s coast. Its range extends from New Jersey south through the Gulf of Mexico and down the Atlantic coast to Brazil. This relatively flat-bodied, cartilaginous fish is related to sharks, whom happen to be one of their main predators. Despite their venomous bite and stinging barb, the stingray is non-aggressive, but those that don’t heed the “shuffle” warnings run the risk of stepping on one when they enter the water. Stingrays will burrow into the sand to rest and if stepped upon will involuntarily slap their four inch barbed tail up at the offender.
Less than two thousand incidences occur each year in the United States and most of them are minor injuries around the feet and ankles. The knife-like barb is serrated on both edges and terminates at a venom gland at the base which is equipped with a serious nerve toxin. Rarely is the injury serious or fatal and can be treated initially by immersion in hot water which breaks down the proteins in the venom and eliminates the pain. Further treatment is suggested.
If anyone should feel threatened it’s the clams, oysters, mussels, tube worms, coquinas, sand fleas, sand dollars, shrimp and even octopus that the stingrays feed on. The bat-like fish will flap its wings to uncover critters in the sand or blow water over the sand to achieve a similar effect. It even possesses an acute sensory system that detects its prey’s electrical field but most commonly uses its sense of smell.
What is harder to detect is a foot descending from the world above the waves. If you’re heading to the beach in stingray territory, make sure you shuffle; you never know what will surprise you.