Manta Ray vs. Stingray: What’s the Difference?

Manta ray vs stingray on plain background

Manta rays and stingrays are marine creatures often confused with each other. Although they are related and look similar, these species are distinct.

These ray species come from different families. Manta rays are generally larger and reside in the open ocean, while stingrays are usually found near the seafloor. Most stingrays are disc-shaped and have barbs, while mantas have diamond-shaped bodies with cephalic lobes and large pectoral fins.

Besides these, manta and stingrays vary in diet, temperament, and behavior. If you want to learn more about their differences, keep reading! We’ve got everything you need to know about manta and stingrays.

Summary of Manta Ray vs. Stingray

Manta RayStingray
Species:From the family Mobulidae, under the genus MantaFrom families Myliobatoidei, Dasyatidae, Urotrygonidae, Potamotrygonidae, Gymnuridae, Himanturidae, Plesiobatidae, and Hexatrygonidae
Appearance:Flat, diamond-shaped body; large cephalic lobes; mouth at the frontFlat, disc-shaped body; long tail containing one or more venomous barbed spines
Size:Up to 29 feet wingtip-to-wingtipUp to 8 feet across across; varies with species
Weight:Up to 3,000 pounds10–800 pounds
Habitat:Tropical and subtropical oceans; often seen in open waters; visits cleaning stations on coral reefsHabitats range from tropical to temperate regions; typically found in shallow, coastal waters
Temperament:Generally peaceful and curious; does not possess a venomous tailTypically docile and shy, but can become defensive if threatened; possesses a venomous spine that can deliver a painful sting
Diet:Plankton, small fish, and tiny crustaceansSmall fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and worms
Lifespan:Up to 50 years15–25 years

Key Differences Between Manta Rays and Stingrays

Distinguishing between manta rays and stingrays may seem challenging, but there are tell-tale traits that can help you identify them.

These species, although almost visually identical, have distinct characteristics and behaviors that set them apart.


Group of manta rays swimming together

Manta and stingrays fall under the Myliobatiformes order within the broader Batoidea group. While they share specific characteristics, like their soft bodies and broad fins, they’re members of distinct families.

The manta ray is categorized under the Manta genus of the Mobulidae family. There are two known species of manta rays: Giant Oceanic Manta Rays (Manta birostris) and Reef Manta Rays (Manta alfredi).

In contrast, stingrays are a group of species from eight diverse families. These include Hexatrygonidae for the Sixgill Stingray, Dasyatidae for Whiptail Stingrays, and Potamotrygonidae for River Stingrays.

Among the most recognized is Myliobatidae, which includes the migrating Spotted Eagle Rays.


Stingray side view

Manta rays, sometimes called the “birds of the ocean,” stand out with their expansive wingspans and flattened bodies.

This appearance isn’t just for show; their broad triangular pectoral fins allow them to glide smoothly through the water. Their eyes on the sides of their wide heads give them a broad field of vision.

They also have a unique mouth adapted for filter feeding in front of their head. As they move, they deploy cephalic lobes, which resemble extended wings, to guide tiny marine organisms into their mouths.

Manta ray side view

Meanwhile, stingrays come in various shapes, sizes, and even colors. Their bodies often resemble the hues and patterns of the ocean floor, a tactic to evade keen-eyed predators.

Unlike manta rays, stingrays have evolved to have their eyes on top, giving them a vantage point to watch for danger while staying close to the seabed.

However, when it comes to feeding, they rely more on the sensors near their mouth than their eyes.

Their tails are vastly different, too. Manta rays have a long, whip-like tail, but notably, it lacks a sting. Stingrays, living up to their name, possess a barb on their tails, which can be a defensive weapon when threatened.

Size and Weight

Manta ray swimming with fishes

Although manta and stingrays are related, their differences in size and weight are significant.

Manta rays generally display a more uniform, larger size, while stingrays vary widely, ranging from small to considerably large dimensions.

Manta rays are notably large. Their flat, diamond-shaped body can stretch up to 29 feet from wing-tip to wing-tip. In terms of weight, manta rays are significantly heavy, with some reaching up to 3,000 pounds.

On the other hand, stingrays display various sizes based on their species. The smaller species, like the Atlantic Stingray, can measure 12 to 14 inches across and weigh approximately 10 pounds.

In contrast, the more sizable species, such as the Short-tail Stingray, can have a width of up to seven feet and a weight nearing 770 pounds.

Moreover, the Giant Freshwater Stingray surpasses this, with some individuals reaching eight feet wide and weighing up to 800 pounds.

Habitat and Distribution

Manta ray in the ocean

Manta rays predominantly favor open ocean environments. They can be found worldwide, thriving in warm temperate, subtropical, and tropical waters.

While they are deep-sea dwellers, manta rays are also known to frequent reefs near coastlines. One unique behavior observed in manta rays is their regular visits to specific spots on coral reefs, known as cleaning stations.

At these locations, they allow smaller marine creatures to get rid of the parasites and dead skin.

Meanwhile, stingrays display a broader habitat preference. They can be found not just in the open ocean but also along the seafloor and near reefs.

They share a similar preference with manta rays for warmer waters, favoring subtropical and tropical climates.

However, what distinguishes stingrays is their presence in freshwater rivers and their inclination for coastal waters.

In these shallower waters, stingrays often embed themselves in the sand, remaining largely inactive and moving primarily with tidal rhythms. This behavior allows them to camouflage and protect themselves from potential predators.

Temperament and Behavior

Stingray in the ocean floor

Manta rays, often called gentle giants, are calm and non-aggressive. They pose minimal threat to humans, largely owing to their feeding habits and the absence of a stinging mechanism.

Intriguingly, these creatures are curious, often approaching and inspecting unfamiliar objects.

Another notable behavior is their interaction with smaller fish, where they actively participate in cleaning practices, allowing these fish to get rid of parasites.

Manta rays also exhibit behaviors that continue to intrigue many, including me. In many of our research trips, we often observe manta rays propelling themselves out of the water, called breaching.

Although there have been several theories about this behavior, there is still no profound evidence to pinpoint why they do it. One thing is for sure, though — it is exciting to watch.

Stingrays, on the other hand, possess a more complex temperament. Generally shy, these creatures prefer to avoid human contact, although they are known to tolerate interactions in controlled settings like aquariums.

While they are usually passive, a threatened stingray might use its tail as a defense, injecting venom that, although painful, is infrequently fatal to humans.

Stingrays also exhibit distinct swimming patterns, waving gracefully or flapping their sides.

On the other hand, manta rays swim by flapping their large, wing-like pectoral fins, which propels them forward. This flapping motion, resembling a bird in flight, allows them to glide effortlessly through the water.


Manta ray looking for food

Manta rays and stingrays also have distinct differences in their diets and feeding behaviors.

Mantas are among the few rays that evolved into filter feeders. Their mouths, uniquely situated at the front of their bodies, efficiently filter zooplankton as they swim near the ocean’s surface.

These giant rays primarily consume tiny organisms, including krill, shrimp, and planktonic crabs.

Additionally, manta rays showcase remarkable hunting techniques in deeper waters. They gather small fish into dense groups and, with a swift movement, engulf them, utilizing their wide mouths to their advantage.

Meanwhile, stingrays mainly function as bottom feeders. Frequenting the ocean’s or rivers’ floors, they effectively funnel prey towards their specialized mouths.

Their jaws are uniquely designed to crush hard shells, making mollusks like clams, oysters, and mussels a staple in their diet. Shrimp and worms are also frequently consumed by these rays.

Notably, certain deep-sea stingray species have developed ambush-hunting techniques. They camouflage by burying themselves in the sand, waiting patiently to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

Here is a video of a Southern Stingray burying itself in the sand:

Southern Stingray Buries Itself

Lifespan and Health

Stingray among the corals

Manta rays, known for their impressive size, generally outlive most other rays, with lifespans extending up to 50 years in the wild.

Their considerable size provides a degree of protection against natural predators, but they are not exempt from threats. Human activities, including fishing and habitat destruction, pose challenges.

Furthermore, Reef Manta Rays are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to declining populations, while Oceanic Manta Rays are, unfortunately, endangered.

In contrast, stingrays typically live between 15 and 25 years, depending on the species. Predators, habitat loss, and overfishing can impact their health.

Their tail barb, which they use for defense, can take time to regrow if broken, making them temporarily more vulnerable.

Conservation status varies among stingray species; however, many face threats due to human activities.


Manta ray swimming in the ocean isolated

Manta rays are known for their elaborate mating rituals. Female mantas reach sexual maturity between eight and ten years. When a female manta ray is ready to mate, it swims in a pattern that attracts male suitors.

Here is how the mating ritual of manta rays looks like:

The Breathtaking Mating Behavior of Manta Rays

After engaging in a dance-like mating ritual, the female selects her preferred mate. Female manta rays can delay fertilization after conception to ensure optimal conditions for offspring.

Manta rays also practice ovoviviparity, where eggs are fertilized and hatched inside the mother.

Unlike many sea animals, female manta rays produce only one or two pups at a time after a gestation period of about 12 to 13 months.

These live pups, once born, are miniature versions of their parents and require no direct care, as they’re well-equipped for immediate independent life.

Stingrays, on the other hand, have a more direct approach to mating. The male often bites the female’s back or fins to get her attention. While this may appear aggressive, it’s a typical courtship behavior among stingrays.

They also reproduce through ovoviviparity, like manta rays. They typically give birth once a year, with litters varying between 5 and 13 offspring.

Unlike manta rays, stingray embryos rely first on a yolk sac for nutrition, and later, the mother provides a nourishing fluid known as uterine milk.

After birth, young stingrays are independent, although some species, like the Giant Freshwater Stingray, exhibit rare maternal bonding, where offspring remain close until they grow significantly.

Other Differences

Stingray in the ocean floor with white sand

Manta rays possess one of the largest brain-to-body ratios among fishes.

Studies have found that they can pass the mirror test, a measure of self-recognition — a capability shared with only a few animals like bottlenose dolphins, elephants, and certain primates.

In addition, research also suggests that they can create mental maps through smell and visual cues.

On the other hand, while stingrays also have relatively large brains for fish, their brain-to-body ratio typically doesn’t match that of manta rays.

Observations from controlled environments, such as aquariums, have shown that stingrays can learn routines, navigate mazes, and associate signals with food.

These behaviors, however, tend to point more toward associative learning than complex problem-solving.

Frequently Asked Questions

Stingray swimming near the bottom

Why Can’t You Touch Manta Rays?

Touching manta rays is greatly discouraged because it can harm them by removing the protective mucous layer on their skin, exposing them to infections and diseases.

Furthermore, human interaction can stress these gentle creatures, affecting their natural behavior and health. For your safety and theirs, it’s best to admire them from a distance.

Do Manta Rays Sting or Bite?

Manta rays, unlike stingrays, do not possess a stinging barb on their tails. While they have a large mouth, they feed primarily on plankton and do not bite humans out of aggression.

Are Manta Rays Aggressive?

Manta rays are not aggressive creatures. In fact, they are known as the “gentle giants” of the ocean. While they possess a sizeable appearance, manta rays do not also display aggressive behaviors towards humans.

It’s crucial, however, for individuals to approach them with caution and respect, ensuring minimal disturbance to their natural habits.

Are Stingrays Friendly?

Stingrays are generally non-aggressive marine animals. While they don’t naturally seek human interaction, many stingrays, especially in popular tourist spots, have become accustomed to human presence.

They might even approach swimmers, expecting food. However, when threatened or stepped on, a stingray might use its sharp, venomous barb as a defense mechanism.

Do Stingrays Like Being Touched?

Stingrays do not inherently “like” or “dislike” being touched in the same way humans perceive these feelings.

In certain aquatic environments where stingrays have become accustomed to human interaction, they may tolerate or even approach humans, often associating them with food.

However, it’s crucial to understand that wild stingrays should be cautiously approached. Touching them can be stressful for the animal and may trigger a defensive reaction.

Observing from a distance is the best way to appreciate these creatures without causing them distress and endangering yourself.

Hopefully, knowing the differences between manta rays and stingrays has deepened your understanding and care for these creatures. Comment below if you have questions or facts about these awesome species!

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