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Stingrays Respond to Enrichment With Affection and Bonding, Phoenix Zoo Finds

Aquarists are given the rare opportunity to learn from a wide variety of animals on a daily basis. The ability to constantly learn from animals in our care provides valuable insight and advances in animal welfare. The Phoenix Zoo has recently been providing significant insight to the intelligence of the Southern cownose stingray. This insight...

Aquarists are given the rare opportunity to learn from a wide variety of animals on a daily basis. The ability to constantly learn from animals in our care provides valuable insight and advances in animal welfare. The Phoenix Zoo has recently been providing significant insight to the intelligence of the Southern cownose stingray. This insight is being used to assist other facilities in breeding and husbandry practices.

I began training stingrays at the Phoenix Zoo in the summer of 2014 after analyzing some interesting behaviors I captured on film. I placed an underwater camera in the enclosure when providing enrichment. I saw that one female stingray, Annie, was incredibly interested in a hula hoop. She would swim back to this hula hoop repeatedly and would move or bump it with her rostrum. On her final approach she picked up the hula hoop and carried it away from the rest of the animals. I began developing a training program with Annie where I ask her to retrieve the hula hoop on cue and to bring this hoop to me.

Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.

Annie learned to retrieve the hoop within 30 minutes of the first training session. Once the basics of the retrieval behavior became consistent, the hula hoop could be switched out with a smaller dive ring attached to an underwater camera. Annie will swim to the ring when the cue is given, wear it like a collar and return it to the aquarist when the return cue is given. Although Annie is the only stingray that has officially been trained to carry an underwater camera, there are three other stingrays that have also learned to carry this camera just by watching her.

Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.

Watch our video about this work:

We should never underestimate the intelligence of any animal, nor should we underestimate the fact that every animal is capable of affection. The training sessions with Annie have also created a bond between us. I am always immediately greeted by Annie upon stepping into the tank. As other animals began to learn the retrieval behavior from her, they also began to show signs of bonding with me.

Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.

The misunderstood reputation of this species, along with the fact that their intelligence is grossly underestimated, has unfortunately lead to killing contests on the Patuxent River in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. Cownose stingrays are killed by the hundreds in the most brutal way possible: shot with bow and arrows, bludgeoned with baseball bats and stabbed with spears.

These killing contests began to “help” prevent the oyster farmers from losing product, but the event does not seem to have enough regulation. Contestants kill as many stingrays as they need until they have three of the largest they can find. Unfortunately during this time of year, the largest stingrays targeted are pregnant females. Carcasses not suitable for the weigh-in are dumped back into the river.

Since the weight-based, unregulated killing contests are targeting pregnant females with little regulation, there is a potential to negatively impact the species. Cownose stingrays typically have one pup per year, so careless killings could one day prove to be detrimental since the species cannot repopulate quickly.

Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.

The past two years that the enrichment and training program have been in place, the Zoo has seen a significant increase in the number of pups born each season. While we hope to investigate further, we suspect that the increased stimulation could be one of many reasons that our breeding program has become one of the most successful currently in the AZA community.

We can only hope that our work can be used to one day help other stingrays, both captive and wild, or at the very least, prove that these animals do not deserve the fate they are met with on the Patuxent River.

Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.
Captive Atlantic cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, at the touch tank in the Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Copyright 2016 Michael S. Nolan. All rights reserved worldwide.

Lindsey McLaurin is the Senior Stingray Keeper at the Phoenix Zoo. Her passion for stingrays stems from a career of working to create new forms of enrichment and training to improve the cognitive ability and welfare of captive elasmobranchs. Her work with stingrays began at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens where she also began introducing new concepts to enrichment. After working at SeaWorld Orlando she moved to the Phoenix Zoo where she developed an enrichment and training program for stingrays that is currently being shared with facilities around the world and aims to change public perception about misunderstood aquatic species.

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Meet the Author

Lindsey McLaurin
Lindsey McLaurin is currently the Senior Stingray Keeper at the Phoenix Zoo. Her passion for stingrays stems from a career of working to create new forms of enrichment and training to improve the cognitive ability and welfare of captive elasmobranchs. Her work with stingrays began at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens where she also began introducing new concepts to enrichment. After working at SeaWorld Orlando she moved to the Phoenix Zoo where she developed an enrichment and training program for stingrays that is currently being shared with facilities around the world and aims to change public perception about misunderstood aquatic species.