March 19th, 2013 by James Ayre
Stingray populations that have substantial interaction with tourists, such as those in some regions of the Cayman Islands, show vast changes in their behavior, new research has found.
The stingrays completely change: inverting their sleep cycle from a nocturnal one to a diurnal one, changing from a solitary animal to a school-forming one, from one that mates only seasonally to one that mates and gives birth year round, and from a rather passive disposition to a much more aggressive one. Those are very significant changes.
The populations in question are those that are a part of the so-called ‘interactive tourism’ that has become popular in many parts of the Caribbean, particularly those around heavily visited ecotourism sites such as Stingray City/Sandbar in the Cayman Islands. The researchers studied the southern stingray population of “Stingray City — a sandbar in the Cayman Islands that draws nearly a million visitors each year to feed, pet and swim with its stingrays — to assess how the intensive ecotourism has affected the animals’ behavior.”
“Measuring that impact is important because there’s a lot of interest in creating more of these interactive ecotourism operations, but we know little about the life histories of the animals involved or how they might change,” said study co-author Guy Harvey, from Nova Southeastern University.
But as detailed above, the researchers found that the stingrays exposed to significant tourism dramatically changed in behavior.
“We saw some very clear and very prominent behavioral changes, and were surprised by how these large animals had essentially become homebodies in a tiny area,” said study co-author Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and NSU Oceanographic Center professor, who led the study.
“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. “Stingray City means big business in the Cayman Islands, where each stingray generates as much as $500,000 annually in tourism income,” Harvey said. “The team plans to continue to monitor Stingray City’s population to track its health — and the industry’s impact — over time.”
“Right now, these animals have no protection at all,” Harvey said. “Without more studies like these, we won’t know what that means for the wildlife or if we need to take action. It’s unclear how much of the stingray’s daily diet comes from tourism provided food, but the good news is we have seen the animals forage when tourists are absent suggesting that these animal are not completely dependent on these handouts.”
It’s interesting to see how fast an animals behavior can change in response to changing environment conditions. Urban coyotes in particular come to mind. Many other animals don’t seem to adapt so well to urbanized areas though, most simply move closer to extinction.
This research brings up interesting questions about the role that humans possibly played in the extinction of the many megafauna animals that disappeared at the end of the last ice age.
Image Credit: Guy Harvey
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