Oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris) are large pelagic planktivores that are threatened globally by targeted fisheries and bycatch. While studies of oceanic mantas have increased substantially in the past decade, major knowledge gaps remain in their basic biology, ecology and life history. The juvenile stage in particular is virtually unstudied, as juvenile oceanic mantas are rarely observed in the wild and are known primarily from fisheries and captive individuals. Here, we present evidence suggesting that Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is an important habitat for juvenile manta rays. Recent genetic evidence indicates that both oceanic mantas and a proposed third manta species (Mobula cf. birostris) are present at FGBNMS. Size estimates of mantas sighted at FGBNMS over 25 years of monitoring efforts indicate that 95% of individuals are smaller than the size at maturity for male M. birostris, and 80% are smaller than the size at maturity for M. alfredi. Photographic records of juvenile males with undeveloped claspers further corroborate these findings. Temporal patterns of use and the prevalence of juveniles suggest that this region may serve as nursery habitat for M. birostris and M. cf. birostris. Further research is necessary to determine the importance of the region to juveniles of each species, as well as long-term patterns of habitat use and residency.
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The data presented here were collected during NOAA cruises to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. These cruises were funded jointly by NOAA ONMS, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. We thank all the FGBNMS and recreational SCUBA divers who provided their sighting data and Anna Knochel for updating the sightings database. Long-term monitoring data collection from 2010 to 2017 was funded through an interagency agreement between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, through Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. We thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous version of this manuscript.
JDS was supported by NOAA ONMS Nancy Foster Scholarship NA15NOS4290068.
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All authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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Reviewed by G. N. di Sciara and undisclosed experts.
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Stewart, J.D., Nuttall, M., Hickerson, E.L. et al. Important juvenile manta ray habitat at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Mar Biol 165, 111 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-018-3364-5