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Freshwater Stingrays: Points to Consider Before Your First Purchase

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Stingrays – mysterious, beautiful and odd – are difficult to resist, and therein lies their main drawback as aquarium fishes. While not particularly delicate, experience with other fishes does not always serve one well where stingrays are concerned. Their husbandry is not well known, and there are a number of special considerations which must be borne in mind.A marine species (the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea) was the first ray to catch my attention. I was about 7 years old, prowling the stalls of NYC’s famous Fulton Fish Market in the pre-dawn light. Accompanied by my grandfather, we were seeking new pets – octopus, turtles, eels and such – that rarely appeared in pet stores at the time. The skates, while living, were in bad shape, but I vowed to give them a try someday. Eventually, freshwater rays appeared in Manhattan aquarium shops, and I was off and running.

Following are some points to consider before purchasing your first freshwater stingray. Having a handle on these matters beforehand will greatly increase your chances of succeeding with these spectacular fishes.

Medical Precautions
Stingrays are venomous animals. While no freshwater species are known to have caused human fatalities, we know very little about the nature of the toxins they produce, and individual sensitivities may be a concern.

Speak with your doctor and arrange for medical care in the event of an emergency before purchasing a stingray.

Selecting an Individual: Size
The small stingrays that appear in the pet trade are not adults but rather are babies of a variety of large species. Even those sold as “teacup rays” will reach at least 18 inches in diameter when mature (2-3 years), and will require a tank measuring 4′ x 2′ x 2′ if they are to thrive. Adults of several trade species approach 3 feet in diameter.

Furnishing the Aquarium
Stingray skin is easily damaged by ornaments that are safe for other fishes; they do best in a sparsely-furnished aquarium. Even small specimens will quickly uproot plants and dislodge filter tubes, aerators and heaters.

Use smooth stones as a substrate. Typical aquarium gravel is too rough and may cause skin lesions. Substrates designed for marine aquariums raise the pH to dangerously high levels and sand, while acceptable, poses water quality problems (please write in for further details).

Stingrays often alight upon aquarium heaters, but seem not to respond to the high temperatures generated. Heaters must always be shielded by a PVC sheath or heavy rocks.

Personal Observations in the Field
While on a field research assignment in Venezuela, I was happily situated within the range of 4 species of freshwater stingrays. The animals spread out onto the flooded grasslands during the rainy season, and were rather easy to find.

The largest individual I observed was dead and floating down the Orinoco River. Spanning nearly 4 feet across, it easily supported the weight of the black vulture that was feeding upon its carcass.

A Hands-On Experience with Stingrays
Please be sure to visit That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, PA (the world’s largest pet store) for a chance to hand feed our friendly marine stingrays.

More to follow next week. Until then, please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, Frank Indiviglio.

Further Reading
Please check out the book Freshwater Stingrays.

An interesting article on the conservation of South American stingrays is posted at http://www.cites.org/common/com/ac/20/E20-inf-08.pdf.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally published by Raimond Spekking.

28 comments

  1. avatar

    Hi,
    I’m interestd in the oddball fishes and wrote about my frogmouth catfish before(still doing well, thanks). I’m dying to get a stingray, and now a few have come into a store near me. The fish person at my pet store has told me that the stingrays he sells will only grow to a size that is limited to the size of the tank. They will not outgrow the tank, but will stay small. According to him, his son has a freshwater Motoro? stingray that is 2 years old but has not grown at all, even though it eats well. It lives comfortably in a 20L aquarium. Is this on the level? Any ideas, thank you.

  2. avatar

    Hello Susan, Frank Indiviglio here. Nice to hear from you again.

    Although there are a few freshwater stingrays that mature at fairly small sizes, most are little-studied and do not appear in the pet trade. The smallest you are likely to encounter (rarely) in a store would belong to the genus Histrix, and reaches 12-14 inches in diameter.

    The concept of “not outgrowing the tank” is often used as a selling point, but is an extremely poor way of choosing a species and an aquarium. Many fishes, when kept in inappropriately small or overcrowded tanks, will become stunted (cease growing). The same occurs in natural ponds from which predators have been removed, allowing sunfishes, yellow perch and others to over-populate the habitat. However, this is a stress response and should not be encouraged, as stunting greatly diminishes the fish’s lifespan and quality of life. The species mentioned by the owner, commonly sold as the motoro stingray (Potamotrygon motoro) reaches 36-40 inches in diameter. An animal housed in a 20 gallon aquarium, and which has not grown in 2 years, is being mistreated.

    Please let me know if you need further information to assist you in making a decision. Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    I have a 4000 gallon pond with some ghost koi and gold fish. I would like to know where I could find a freshwater stingray.Any info. is appreciated.

  4. avatar

    Though Stingrays are imported to retailers across the country, you would just have to find a pet store that carries them, as your average petco/walmart stores will not. I do not recommend that it be housed with koi and goldfish as rays are sensitive to water quality issues. They are tropical, so if your pond is outdoors, it would need to have lower pH, preferably <7.0 and temps maintained at 78F or more year round. Not a good mix for with typical pond fish, and generally NOT a good idea for a pond for many other reasons either.

  5. avatar

    ok my mom just got a stingray really not sure what it is but she did eveything the pet store told her to do and this morning when she got up the stingray was dead what could have caused this and could it be something in the tank im not sure. another thing i would like to ask is what kind of sand should we use in the tank they sold us river bottom sand is this ok for a stingray? thanks

  6. avatar

    There are many variables that could have caused the death of the stingray….water chemistry is usually the first thing to check. They need very well-established, well-maintained aquariums and can be sensitive to changes in pH, ammonia, temp, ect. river bottom sand should be ok if it is just fine sand as I suspect. Are there other fish in the tank? How big is the tank and how long has it been set up? Have you tested the chemistry? Did the fish show any signs of stress or have any marks or injuries?

  7. avatar

    My family would love to have a freshwater stingray! How long should we have the tank set up and running before we add our new ray to it? And what size should the tank be? I have read about tank size from many different websites and books and not a one has stated the same size. and could we put two in the same tank? I would not want it to be alone. (that just seems mean to me)

  8. avatar

    Well, if you want to keep a ray you’ll need to have a well established aquarium…that doesn’t just mean up and running, it means a cycled and stable tank. Have you ever kept aquariums before? If not I would suggest that you start with a freshwater community with some more common and hardy species like tetras and barbs until you can have a better understanding of maintaining water chemistry and the other ins and outs of the hobby. Rays are not what I would recommend for a beginner as they tend to be sensitive to changes in aquarium conditions, and I would hate for you to jump in too quickly just to have your pet perish. By starting with a FW community, you’ll also be one step closer to a well-established environment that can accomodate a ray. As far as size of aquarium, it will depend largely on the species you plan on keeping. Some species have a much smaller mature size than others. Rays like a lot of open sandy surface so a shallower tank with a wide floor is probably best. Have you looked at the various common species available? Even the smallest max out at 10 to 14 inches (disc size), so the recommended tank size is at least a 125 gallon. Some will say you can keep smaller specimens in a smaller tank like a 55 or 75, and though they are usually small at purchase size and may do well for a while in a smaller tank, you risk mortality as they outgrow a smaller tank and filtration becomes inadequate for the bio-load. Best to start them in a large, well-filtered, well-established tank. Please let me know if you have any other questions, I’ll be happy to help.

  9. avatar

    Thank for responding so fast. We were looking to get a 150 gallon tank, and I was wondering once we had it up running and knew the pH levels of the enviroment and found it safe for a ray, In that size of a tank could we keep two? And what species would you recommend, for that size of a tank?
    Thank you very much for your imput I just want to go into this endevour armed with as much knowledge as I can.

  10. avatar

    A 150 should be able to house 2 small rays for some time with plenty of filtration and regular maintenance, though larger is recommended. Some of the most popular rays are P. reticulatus, Teacup Rays. They stay smaller in relation to most other species and they are frequently available in the trade for that reason. Do keep in mind that the pH levels are not the only concern…ammonia and nitrite levels (even very low levels) can be lethal to rays, and regular water changes will be essential to keeping nitrates in check. Rays tend to be dirty eaters and substrate vacuuming will be another maintenance necessity. The idea is to create a stable, clean environment with a population of beneficial bacteria that will keep the tank chemistry steady. Understanding the Nitrogen Cycle and getting the tank to that stable point is the first step to successful fish keeping.

  11. avatar

    Hi. Before I get my TeeCup stingray how long do I have to let my tank grow bacteria for?

  12. avatar

    They need a well established tank so it is not a process to rush…time frame will vary depending on the size of the tank and the number of starter fish you use. Some tanks willl be cyclyed through in 2 weeks, while others can take months to settle. Monitor your chemistry regularly, after you see a spike in nitrite and a spike in ammonia you chould see nothing but nitrate, at which point you’ll do a water change to bring those levels down. It that point you should be able to add more fish, but contunue to monitor levels to be sure the chemistry is stable. The rays should be the last thing you add, when you’re sure the chemistry is established.

  13. avatar

    Hey Frank, this question is reguarding your article on Fresh Water rays. in the article, you mention that sand is not the preferred substrate and instead I should use large smooth stones and you asked to write in for more details on the subject so….thats what im doing. I cannot find more valuable information than yours on the web anywhere and was just wondering why stones are better than sand?
    P.S. I currently own a 300 gallon indoor aquarium that houses a 14-16 inch clownknife fish and a red tail cat about the same size with no substate. and looking to add 3-4 rays to the tank soon and want to add a nice substrate that the rays will enjoy. I am very interested in the hobby and have been doing it for a few years at an increasingly larger rate, but have never had rays before. Thanks for your reply. Keep posting articles.

  14. avatar

    Hello Gregory, Frank Indiviglio here.
    Thanks for the kind words. Actually, fine sand is okay but it tends to become compacted and can easily become stirred-up and will clog certain filters; but if rinsed with a siphon-based gravel washer regularly it is fine for use with rays and will allow them to burrow within. Rocks or gravel sold as “river rock” is also useful; please click here
    http://www.wholesalefloral.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=PRWDB10&gdftrk=gdfV2821_a_7c948_a_7c3615_a_7cPRWDB10&gclid=COe7uqjws6oCFQ495QodbkdS9g
    for an example; often sold in garden supply and outdoor pond outlets. Please be aware that even the smallest rays can reach 18 inches or so in 2-3 years; many trade species top out at 3 feet or so (those sold are youngsters, not dwarf species); your tank would not likely support 2 for long. Also, aggression for the catfish might be a problem.
    Please let me know if you need further information. Enjoy and please keep me posted,
    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  15. avatar

    Hey frank, thanks for the quick response. Think im definately going to go with the smooth river stones. I’m sorry to bother you again, but I just had one more question (well maybe 2). The rays that I am looking to add are St johns Florida freshwater stingrays which I’m told should stay relatively small (but that could still be huge). Do you think they would be alright at 2 rays for a few years then transfer to 1500 gallon indoor pond? If so, then what is this “aggression” with the catfish that you’re referring to? Like the catfish could get hurt? Or the other way around? Thanks for all the help frank

  16. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the feedback…interesting fish. It should work, size-wise. Many folks keep them for years in smaller tanks, just not ideal as stunting inhibits survival in the long run.

    Red-tailed cats are tricky…I had some yard-long individuals that did not bother smaller fishes, yet attacked soft-shelled turtles (huge zoo exhibit). Others report no problems at all, but they often eat smaller tankmates sooner or later. With rays, I would worry about non-food related attacks – territoriality or whatever – especially as they share the same part of the tank.

  17. avatar

    hi i have a couple of questions, i seen a freshwater sting ray and very cheap, i have a lot of knowledge in aquarium keeping. i have a 180 gallon fish tank and with in the aquarium i have a small 6in red tailed catfish, a 7in lima shovelnose and two 5in oscars would a 180 gallon fish tank be a big enough tank for the 8in stingray and would he possibly see my other fish as food? ive never had a string ray so i thought id gather some information before i buy and have him stressed out or worse die on me, thanks for the help

  18. avatar

    With the current stock in the tank the 180 will already be stretched to its limit as those fish mature. It is usially recommended that rays be given a large tank to themselves as they too grow large and need the space. The other fish in the tank also pose a threat to the rays as they may harrass the ray if it is exposed. Damage caused to the ray’s tissues will open them quickly to bacterial and fungal infections. I would recommend against the addition of the ray to this aquarium in its current state.

  19. avatar

    I want to buy a Florida freshwater stingray and was told they grow to 14″ I have a 125 gallon and have housed many tropical fish in it like piranha, Florida gar, tiger Oscars ect… So I already know how to maintain the water chemistry I guess what im asking is will my 125 be ablr to house the stingray and if it grows more than 14″ how long from a baby will I be able to keep it? I also have a thin layer of sand at the bottom so I imagine for a stingray I’d have to put a lot more in.

  20. avatar

    Hi,

    It’s a good idea to ask for the fishes’ Latin name, as many different species are often sold under the same common names. However, if the species reaches 14″, it would not do well in a 125 as an adult. In addition to the lack of swimming space, water quality would be hard to control…ammonia levels etc. spike rapidly when a large fish is kept in a small aquarium; filtration may not be able to offset this as the fish grows. You can start the ray off in that tank, and if possible upgrade as it matures (and, as we all do, then put other fishes in the 125!).

    Rays are hard to resist, but you are wise to plan ahead, I hope all goes well, pl let me know if you need more info, best, Frank

  21. avatar

    Hi Frank
    Thanks for your unselfish wisdom on an amazing hobby. I am cycling a 150 gallon for a couple of weeks now. The levels are all good. I would love a ray so should I start with one or should I start with other fish that are suitable and add the ray last. What type of fish do you recommend, how many and which ray do you suggest. I have the capabilities to go bigger in the future but I want to start somewhere. Thanks so much for yourtime..

  22. avatar

    Hello Joe,

    Thanks for the kind words and very sorry for the delay. I missed seeing your comment somehow. I would establish the ray first…much more risky if other fish are in tank. I prefer to keep rays alone, as they are easily stressed, and many fish harass them, if only by their movements, etc. Also, as it will be growing, best to supply with as much room as possible, and limit strain on filter etc. Once it settles in, there are possibilities we can discuss, but I’d hold off on other fishes for now.
    \

    Enjoy and please keep me posted, Frank

  23. avatar

    Hi, Frank
    Im gonna get a freshwater stingray probably a P. Motoro, it will be in a 4 x 2 x 2 tank for a year and then housed in a 10 x 5 x 5 for the rest of its life, is it okay? Or do I need to get a larger tank than the 4 x 2 x 2?

  24. avatar

    Hello,

    4 x 2 x 2 would be appx 55 gallons, I believe; good starting tank…how long it will be suitable depends upon species, diet, temperature and other factors, but you’ll be able to judge as time goes on. Sounds like you are wisely planning ahead – enjoy and please keep me posted, Frank

  25. avatar

    Thanks for the quick reply Frank :)
    If the ray outgrows the 55 gallon tank, im gonna buy a new tank for it because I have extra money :D
    ( probably 300 gallon because i need it for my common snapping turtle in the future) :)

  26. avatar

    My pleasure…you like them big, I see! very nice to hear you’ll be providing a proper home for the snapper; one of my favorites, raise 1a hatchling each year for my nephew, always tempted to keep one long term; the brute pictured in this article was under my care at the Bx Zoo – 65-70 lbs.; photo of a 206 lb alligator snapper, and another of the large common snapper, here..is one of these in your future?!

  27. avatar

    My snapping turtle eats a lot, and also poops a lot, lol, he loves superworms, everybody who has seen him says his cute but scary, haha I hope mine will get as big as the one in the pic :D

  28. avatar

    The heaviest ever recorded was a captive..81 lbs I believe, but they do tend to get obese as adults so be careful. I’ve always fed them and most turtles outside of their main aquarium, in a container that is easily dumped and rinsed. Saves work, filter changes, etc.

    Please keep me posted, enjoy, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.