Lady Elliot Island, Queensland, Australia - The manta ray, Manta birostris, is the world's largest ray, with a disc width of up to seven metres. It is an iconic species found in all the world's oceans. As a harmless giant it attracts considerable interest from the general public and is the subject of commercial dive-tourism industries worth millions of dollars.
Manta rays are also targeted for fisheries in some parts of the world. Recent demand in east Asia for manta ray products for traditional medicine poses an immediate threat to the species and has caused a dramatic increase in fishing pressure throughout southeast Asia and eastern Africa. This has led to significant population declines in many regions. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species and is not currently protected in Australian waters.
In Australia, manta rays occur in relatively shallow water along the east coast from Narooma in southern NSW to the tip of Cape York in the north, a distance of nearly 4,000km. Although the rays are seen commonly and dived with, relatively little is known about most aspects of their biology and ecology, and there is no scientific data available on the Australian east coast population. Little is known for example, about how many mantas there are, whether they move up and down the coast or favour particular sites and if so, why, how quickly they grow, when they mature or how they reproduce.
Project Manta wishes to rectify this disturbing lack of information by engaging scientists, industry partners and the general public in a comprehensive study of manta rays that will enhance our knowledge of the species, generate economic and social benefits and provide a basis for long-term monitoring of the environment.
Looking to the future, the manta raysí global distribution and easy to identify shape make it an excellent indicator species through which to monitor the effects of environmental change on our oceans and reefs. Global warming has caused marked changes to global oceanic conditions including changes in water temperature, current patterns and ocean acidification all of which may have dramatic consequences on the distribution, movements and behaviours of manta rays and the reefs on which they depend. Correlating manta distribution and movements with large scale oceanographic changes will help scientists to identify and monitor global oceanic health.
Meet the Scientists
Dr Kathy Townsend
University of Queensland
Born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Dr Kathy Townsend did a year of undergraduate study at the University of Calgary before immigrating to Australia to complete her undergraduate, Honours and PhD at The University of Queensland in Brisbane.
Dr Townsend is a marine ecologist with eclectic professional interests, which include manta ray biology, mudskipper ecology, coral reef ecology, shark reproduction, impact of ingested rubbish on sea turtles and human impacts on the marine environment. She is a lecturer and Manager of Research and Education at the Moreton Bay Research Station on North Stradbroke Island off of Brisbane.
Dr Townsend has been working and living on tropical research stations for over 10 years. One of the many roles she plays within the station is as a carer to injured marine wildlife. She regularly attends to injured turtles, dugongs and stranded marine mammals.
For more information, visit the Earthwatch website http://www.earthwatch.org/australia/exped/townsend.html