As reported by Marine Megafauna Foundation, a new study suggests that manta rays move their cephalic lobes not just for feeding, but also to sense the local environment and for social communication. 

The research, conducted by scientists from Marine Megafauna Foundation, Macquarie University, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Papua, offers “new and detailed” insights into how manta rays interact with one another in the wild. The team’s previous research concluded that manta rays are able to recognise other individuals that they enjoy socialising with. Understanding of how these individuals interact and communicate information with one another could be an important step in gaining additional knowledge about their ecology and behaviour.

Published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, the study observed gatherings of manta rays at cleaning stations in Raja Ampat, West Papua. Researchers recorded all cephalic lobe movements made by the manta rays, including the movements’ timing in relation to their context.

The study documents a series of movements and positions that occurred more frequently, and for longer periods of time, during social interactions. For example, small flicking movements of the lobe tips occurred most frequently when the animals were facing one another, while lobe rolling was linked to being followed. Additional movements appeared more frequently as the rays utilised the cleaning station, perhaps suggesting some form of signaling between the manta rays and cleaner fish.

“it’s always been very difficult for us to understand communication in other species, particularly those such as manta rays that are so obviously different to us, but it is likely that these animals can communicate in a fairly sophisticated way. Here we provide evidence that suggests that a potential way in which communication may occur in manta rays, by using gestures similar to those known to be important in related shark species. Our results add to the growing evidence that manta rays are fundamentally a social species, which is crucial knowledge for conservation”- Rob Perryman, Lead Author of the study, Macquarie University

Michelle Carpenter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town and the lead observer of the study added, “The one finding that stuck out to me was that they were always moving their cephalic lobes when approaching a stimulus – another manta, a human diver, cleaner fish. This provides an argument that mantas are sensing their local environment with their cephalic lobes.”

By highlighting the social nature of manta rays, the team hopes that they can help boots support for global manta ray protection. “Collecting information about manta rays’ social interactions, particularly at sites such as cleaning stations where they regularly come into contact with divers, is important to develop sustainable ecotourism and conservation initiatives that allow mantas to coexist with humans in their natural habitats,” added Perryman.