Elms Environmental Education Center

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Critter of the Month

Every month we highlight a different local animal.

June 2016: Cownose Ray


Photo: © Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Cownose Ray
Rhinoptera bonasu

Who am I?

 Am I a shark? People think I am when they see my fin sticking out of the water and they are afraid. Am I a voracious oyster eater -- killing all the young oysters that are trying to repopulate the Chesapeake or decimating the harvest of oyster growers? Maybe. I will eat oysters, but then I am older than humans and have always eaten oysters. Still, people hate me for this. Am I a vicious stingray like my cousins, like the one that killed that famous exuberant Australian guy? Absolutely not! I am, mostly, harmless to humans. I have a poisonous barb at the base of my tail that can be very painful if you step on it but other than I leave people alone.

In any case, I can get pretty big -- about 4 feet across my fins. I can get pretty heavy too, about 50 pounds. I am much bigger than the little skates that look like miniature versions of me. I can be easily identified by my wide head and "cownose" like appearance. Look for me swimming around in the shallow water.

I only have one baby a year. She hatches out inside me, eats her egg and then I send her nutrients while she is growing. After a year or so she will be born alive. I will give birth sometime during the month of June. 

Where can you find me? 

 I can be found all along the east coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. I am only present in the Chesapeake from around mid-May to October. When the water gets too cold I will head south.

What do I eat?

 I eat mostly shellfish -- clams, mussels, oysters whelks, crabs. I use my wings to uncover the buried clams and then suck them up and crush them.

What might eat me?

 Sharks. Sharks. Sharks. Oh, and cobia.

Cool reasons why I am the critter of the month!

  • A baby ray is called a "pup".
  • Sharks and Rays are closely related with sharks having gill slits on the side of their heads and rays having gill slits below their heads.
  • Cownose rays are mostly harmless to humans, though like most wild animals are best left alone.

May 2016: American Shad

American Shad


American Shad
Alosa sapidissima

Who am I?

 I am fish. I am an anadromous fish which just means that I spend most of my life in saltwater. Not all of it, however. every spring when the water begins to warm I head upstream into fresher and fresher water until I am way up in the streams where I will lay my eggs. This assumes that the humans have not built dams or other obstructions that would keep me from getting upstream. Time once was when my friends and i would swim up all the rivers on the east coast of North America. Now there are only a few places left. Once I have made it upstream I will lay a few hundred thousand eggs. My eggs will drift downstream and hatch within a couple of weeks My babies will spend their first year in these freshwater streams before heading out to the ocean where we all overwinter. A few years later I will head back upstream to where I was born to lay my own eggs.

Where can you find me?

 We are found everywhere from Canada to North Carolina, breeding in the freshwater rivers along the coast and spending our winters in the Atlantic between Maryland and North Carolina.

What do I eat?

 When I am a small fry, baby, I will eat mostly small animals that live in freshwater streams, like copepods and other zooplankton. As an adult I will continue to eat plankton but will also eat small crustaceans and fish.

What might eat me?

 Most of the bigger fish in the ocean will eat me. Sharks, dolphin, tuna and mackerel are among the fish I worry most about. In the Chesapeake I am a favorite meal of striped bass and the american eel.

Cool reasons why I am the critter of the month!

  • In the Chesapeake only the Patuxent, Nanticoke and Susquehanna rivers remain as viable breeding grounds for shad.
  • I was once the most sought after finfish, not only in the Bay, but throughout the east coast of North America.
  • If I am breeding in the southern part of the United States I may only breed once before dying. Further north I may have the chance to return to my birth home many times before dying.
  • The oldest shad found in Maryland was 11 years old.
  • The biggest shad ever recorded was 2 1/2 feet long.

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