Patrons at the Kansas City Zoo now have the chance to dip their hands into a shallow pool and discover the unique texture and movement of stingrays.
A new exhibit, located near Helzberg Penguin Plaza, featuring both cownose and southern stingrays debuted May 18.
“We’re really excited about this exhibit opening. It will be a hands-on opportunity for guests to not only have fun and learn about the animals, but interact with and touch them,” said Sean Putney, Senior Director of Zoological Operations.
Cownose rays have a unique feature: long, pointed pectoral fins that separate into two lobes in front of their high-domed heads. A crease in the lobes and a notched head create a cow-nose likeness that gives these rays their name.
Southern stingrays have large, flat, diamond-shaped disks without distinct heads.
Stingrays, with their wide, flat bodies, may not look like fish, but they are. Instead of bones, their bodies are supported by cartilage, the same material that’s inside the tip of a human nose.
Stingrays are armed to defend themselves with an edgy and sharp spine in their tail, where venom is produced. However, this spine will be removed so patrons can safely touch the stingrays.
About 20 cownose and eight southern rays from the Florida Keys now call K.C. home. The southern stingray females can get up to five feet wide, while the males are usually smaller.
Cownose stingrays may get two to three feet when grown. Their colors usually match the mud or sand they hide in.
“Cownose stingrays are active and will swim around more, while southern stingrays are a little less active, preferring to stay on the bottom in shallow, warm water,” noted Sean.
The tank will also be home to one of the smallest species of sharks, white-spotted bamboo sharks, a cousin to stingrays. These sharks are known as cat sharks because the barbels, or sensory organs near their mouths, resemble cat whiskers.
“Not all sharks are big and potentially dangerous. These sharks grow to about three feet long and are bottom-dwellers. They are serving a purpose in the eco-system,” Sean said. “Their small bodies allow for them to search out potential food items in and around the rocky crevices in the reef.”
The touch tank itself contains about 20,000 gallons of water and is shaped like a kidney bean. It is shallower at the outer edge and built at a height that provides access to everyone.
The center of the pool is deeper, so animals that choose not to be touched have a place to rest. One of the exhibit’s most important features is located behind the scenes. A state-of-the-art water filtration system ensures that the tank’s water stays clean and clear, providing a healthy habitat for its inhabitants.
“Designing the life-support system was very important. The amount of water that we have in the tank helps to be a buffer against added contaminants. The sand filters, similar to what may be found in swimming pools, act as the initial filter as well as help to provide biological filtration for the pool. There is also U.V., ozone and protein skimmers within the filtration which further help to clean the water so that the sharks and rays have a healthy environment in which to live,” added Sean.
A team of zoo keepers who have experience with water animals such as the polar bears, swans and otters watch over the stingrays and sharks.
Entrance to the exhibit is included with regular Zoo admission. For an additional fee, opportunities will also be available daily for patrons to feed the rays a fish and shrimp snack.
Stingray Bay is open year-round, providing guests a warm spot in winter or a bit of shade in the summer.
Sean added that, “We hope that visiting the zoo will be an interactive experience that utilizes all the senses to entertain and engage visitors of all ages.”
For more information about this or any exhibit, please visit www.kansascityzoo.org or call (816) 595- 1234.
About Kansas City Zoo
Location: 6800 Zoo Drive, Kansas City, Mo., in Swope Park
Hours: 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday–Friday; 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday–Sunday.
Admission: Stingray Bay is included in regular Zoo admission.