A recent publication about the family tree of manta and mobula rays got quite a lot of attention on my social media feeds, inspiring me to explore the topic a bit further. I’ll try to keep this blog as jargon-free as possible, but I apologise in advance if I occasionally veer off into technical terminology.
Before I get going in earnest, a quick introduction to scientific names (or “binomial nomenclature“). Scientific names consists of two parts, the first part is the genus of the species (a bit like your surname), the second part the actual species name (like your first name). A few examples: Antennarius pictus, Homo sapiens, Wunderpus photogenicus. Names are usually in Latin or Greek, or anything that vaguely sounds like either one of those. Unlike common names, the scientific names for species are the same wherever you go in the world, which is helpful when talking to scientists who speak a different language than you do.
So what is the manta vs. mobula article all about? Manta rays are large, charismatic fish that grow up to 7m wide who look and feel a bit like stealth bombers when they glide over your head during a dive. Until recently, two species of manta rays were recognised: Oceanic manta rays (Manta birostris) and reef manta rays (Manta alfredi). Mobula rays look very similar to manta rays, but are smaller and differ from mantas in a few other ways. The newly published paper did genetic research to see just how closely mantas and mobulas are related, and they turn out to be a lot closer related than we previously thought. To put it into human perspective, as a species manta rays were thought to be something like a cousin to mobulas, but they turn out to be more like a brother/sister. In biology-slang: manta rays are now seen as belonging to the same genus as mobula rays. Which in turns means that their scientific name changes from Manta to Mobula, so Mobula birostris and Mobula alfredi. A bit like an adopted child getting a new last name.
What the article does NOT claim, is that manta rays are now suddenly a different species. It just means they are classified differently by taxonomists (and that they might get more invitations to Mobula social events). The common names will remain the same, manta ray species do not suddenly disappear or behave differently. It will take a while before ID guides will pick up on the name change and a lot longer (if ever) before the majority of ocean enthusiasts will notice.
A good point made by a friend, is that a different scientific name means certain official documents concerning the trade in protected species might have to be adjusted. Luckily the statute of manta rays as a species is not questioned, so existing conservation laws should not need to be changed.
But how does this happen? Why do scientists decide that a species has a different family tree than we’ve always thought? This is actually not an uncommon event, in the last years many species (including nudibranchs and frogfishes) received different names and classifications. One reason is that science is constantly evolving and as we learn more, we update our knowledge and correct mistakes from the past (or make new mistakes which might in turn be corrected later). In the manta/mobula-case: by using modern methods we found out that the family-relations were different than we assumed from only looking at the anatomy of these animals.
Another (more surprising) reason, is that we still don’t have a good definition of what a species is. Human nature impels us to order the world around us into categories with different names, initially very broad (animal / plant / rock), then more detailed (fish / mammal / bird), more detailed still (ray / shark / frogfish), until you reach the scientific naming system (Mobula birostris / Mobula alfredi / Mobula mobular). But sometimes it is difficult to decide where one species stops and another one ends.
I know that at school you get taught that two species are different when they can’t produce fertile offspring (Horse + Donkey = Mule, but mules are infertile, so horses and donkeys are different species). To a large extent this definition works, but it breaks down when you start looking closer, especially when you look in the ocean. The question on how to define a species is a surprisingly hot topic in biology! I will explore the species-definition problem in a different blog later (promise!), but it would make this one a bit too long.
In the meantime, you can call manta rays Mantas, Devil rays, Big-ass mobulas, or anything else that floats your boat. As long as you have a great time watching them and try to protect the environment they live in I’m happy!