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Tourist-fed stingrays change their behavior dramatically

Researchers from Nova Southeastern University have discovered that “interactive ecotourism” changes the behavior of stingrays. They studied stingrays residing in one of the world’s most frequented ecotourism sites – Stingray City/Sandbar in the Cayman Islands.

According to a news release from Nova Southeastern University, Stingray City attracts approximately a million visitors annually to feed, pet and swim with the sandbar’s stingrays. Researchers set out to determine exactly how interactive ecotourism has impacted the animals’ behavior.

Co-author Guy Harvey from Nova Southeastern University notes that researchers were motivated by the fact that more interactive ecotourism sites are in the planning stages and scientists need to how these animals are being affected by human contact.

According to National Geographic, stingrays typically live in the shallow coastal waters of temperate seas. They spend a lot of their time inactive, partially hidden in the sand. The animal’s coloration usually camouflages it from its natural predators. Stingrays can weigh almost 800 pounds.

The researchers discovered that Stingray City’s stingrays demonstrate noticeably different patterns of activity than their wild counterparts, who don’t have daily interaction with humans.

According to co-author Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute, researchers recorded “very clear and very prominent behavioral changes” and were stunned by how these big animals become “homebodies in a tiny area.”

Wild stingrays travel great distances to look for food at night, rarely crossing paths with other stingrays. To see whether Stingray City’s stingrays exhibited the same behavior, the researchers tagged and monitored both wild and tourist-fed stingrays over the course of several years and compared their patterns of movement.

They discovered that Stingray City’s stingrays did their feeding during the daytime and rested at night. The animals also had frequent contact with other stingrays, swimming together in less than a quarter square mile of space at Stingray City. The researchers discovered that the stingrays formed schools and fed as a group. In addition, the animals mated and became pregnant year-round, instead of during a specific mating season. The tourist-fed stingrays also showed signs of aggressive behavior toward each other.

The study’s findings reveal that interactive ecotourism can significantly alter how ocean animals behave.

“There are likely to be some health costs that come with these behavior changes, and they could be detrimental to the animals’ well-being in the long term,” Shivji said.

According to the news release, Stingray City generates as much as $500,000 annually in tourism income per stingray.

Harvey noted that more studies are needed to determine what can be done to reduce the long-term impact of interactive ecotourism on Stingray City’s stingrays.

The study’s findings are described in detail in the journal PLOS ONE.