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Urban manta rays: potential manta ray nursery habitat along a highly developed Florida coastline

Jessica H. Pate*, Andrea D. Marshall

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The oceanic manta ray Mobula birostris was listed on the U. Endangered Species Act as a ‘Threatened’” species in 2018, yet insufficient data exist on manta populations throughout US waters to designate critical habitat. Taxonomic and genetic evidence suggests that manta rays in the Western Atlantic are a separate species (M. cf. birostris) and little is understood about the ecology and life history of this putative species. The juvenile life stage of both, M. birostris and birostris, is particularly under-studied. Here, we are the first to describe the characteristics of a manta ray population along a highly developed coastline in southeastern Florida using boat-based surveys and photo identification of individuals. Fifty-nine manta individuals were identified between 2016 and 2019. All males were sexually immature based on clasper development, and 96% of females were classified as immature based on size and absence of mating scars or visible pregnancies. Twenty-five (42%) individuals were observed more than once during the study period and 8 individuals were sighted over multiple years. The occurrence of juveniles, high site fidelity and extended use of the study area by juvenile manta rays suggests southeastern Florida may serve as a nursery habitat. High occurrence of fishing line entanglement (27% of individuals) and vessel strike injury were documented and rapid wound healing was observed. Future research and conservation efforts will focus on identifying the physical and biological features of the potential nursery habitat and mitigation of anthropogenic impacts.