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Variable migration patterns of whitespotted eagle rays Aetobatus narinari along Florida’s coastlines


Basic distribution and movements of elasmobranch species, particularly mesopredatory rays, remain relatively unknown. This is especially true for the whitespotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), a protected species in Florida with poorly described migratory and habitat use patterns. Passive acoustic telemetry was used to reveal multi-scale spatial patterns of A. narinari in Florida waters. Between 2016 and 2018, 54 rays were fitted with acoustic transmitters and tracked via collaborative telemetry networks. Movement patterns between the Atlantic and Gulf coast individuals were distinct; a majority of Gulf coast tagged A. narinari exhibited migratory or transient behaviors while most Atlantic coast tagged individuals remained resident in the Indian River Lagoon (IRL). On both coastlines, water temperatures during times when A. narinari were present were significantly warmer (mean = 27.8 °C) compared to temperatures when A. narinari were absent (mean = 24.9 °C), suggesting temperature may be a major abiotic factor influencing migration patterns. Ontogenetic shifts in habitat use were evident along the Atlantic coast in the IRL, but not along the Gulf coast. Immature rays spent significantly more time (mean = 91.5%) inside the IRL compared to mature counterparts (mean = 60.2%). This is the first multiyear study to examine large-scale movements of A. narinari in U.S. waters and results may be important for adaptive management strategies throughout this species’ range. Importantly, our work suggests potential sub-population structuring of A. narinari may be occurring more than previously considered within Florida, which has significant conservation implications for this species.

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This study benefited from the contributions of volunteers, graduate students, staff, and interns of the Fisheries Ecology and Conservation Laboratory at FAU-HBOI. Thanks to G. Roskar, C. Luck, R. Shaw, M. McCallister, C. Edwards, A. Allen, and C. Lamboy for their assistance in animal collection and tagging. We thank J. Nelson and M. Roy for boating support. On the Gulf coast, field assistance was provided by the Mote Marine Operations team (P. Hull, D. Dougherty, and G. Bryd), as well as interns and volunteers, particularly B. Cahill, A. Deitsch, and T. Graham. We also thank H. Luciano (Mote) for providing local temperature data. Lastly, this study would not have been possible without the collaborative acoustic telemetry networks iTAG and FACT. Specifically, we thank J. Locascio—Mote Marine Laboratory, J. Gardiner—New College of Florida, T. Wiley—Havenworth Coastal Conservation, C. Cotton, D. Grubbs, and C. Peterson—Florida State University Coastal & Marine Lab, B. Ahr and E. Reyier—Kennedy Space Center Ecological Program, N. Hammerschlag—University of Miami Shark Research & Conservation Program, K. Holloway-Adkins—East Coast Biologists, Inc., A. Adams, J. Brownscombe, and L. Griffin—Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Carleton University, and University of Massachusetts Amherst, A. Harborne and Y. Papastamatiou—Florida International University (supported by funding from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), A. Acosta, A. Collins, D. Cox, R. Ellis, D. Morley, C. Purtlebaugh, R. Scharer, and J. Young—Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, S. Kajiura—Florida Atlantic University, J. Liao, C. Morgan, and W. Patterson—University of Florida, G. Alvarez and A. Fox—University of Georgia, T. Mullican and H. Webb—Georgia Aquarium, D. Janiak, M. Ogburn, K. Richie—Smithsonian Institution, B. Franks and K. Villinger—Jacksonville University, A. Kroetz—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service, H. Pratt—Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, and J. Guertin and C. Mott—Inwater Research Group. We thank the reviewers for their helpful critiques.


On the Atlantic coast, this study was supported by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Vero Beach Rotary Club, Indian River Graduate Research Fellowship (2017, 2018), 3-min Thesis Award, and Specialty License Plate (Save Our Seas) fund administered by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation. On the Gulf coast, this study was supported by the Mote Scientific Foundation, Georgia Aquarium, and the NOAA-NMFS Species Recovery Grants to States (Section 6 Program).

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Material preparation, data collection, data analysis, and writing of the manuscript were performed by BCD. MJA and KBH were integral in the study design and funding of the project. BCD, MJA, KBH, and KAW conducted fieldwork and approved the final manuscript. SLB and GRP contributed acoustic data and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Breanna C. DeGroot.

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The submitted work was not carried out in the presence of any personal, professional, or financial relationships.

Ethical approval

All applicable institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Animals were acoustically tagged using university-approved animal use protocols (Gulf coast, Mote AUP #17-11-PH1; Atlantic coast, FAU AUP #A16-16) and handling permits (Gulf coast, FWC SAL-16-1140-SRP; Atlantic coast, FWC SAL-16-1785-SRP).

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DeGroot, B.C., Bassos-Hull, K., Wilkinson, K.A. et al. Variable migration patterns of whitespotted eagle rays Aetobatus narinari along Florida’s coastlines. Mar Biol 168, 18 (2021).

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