Manta and devil ray species occurrence and distribution in Venezuela, assessed through fishery landings and citizen science data
Manta and devil rays (collectively mobulids) belong to the monogeneric Mobulidae, which currently comprises ten species, including a putative third manta ray species (Mobula cf. birostris). These large planktivorous rays are distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world. To date, six mobulid species are reported for the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea; three of which had previously been reported in Venezuela (M. birostris, M. tarapacana and M. hypostoma). A preliminary assessment of fishery landings and citizen science data was conducted to further the scientific knowledge of mobulid species in Venezuela. Fisheries landing data was collected at Margarita Island between 2006 and 2007, and again in 2014. Data mining of internet search engines and social media platforms spanning the last two decades was also conducted. A total of 117 individuals of five mobulid species were recorded: Mobula sp. (n=27), M. birostris (n=36), M. tarapacana (n=3), M. mobular (n=26), M. thurstoni (n=14) and M. cf. birostris (n=11). The latter three species are the first confirmation of these species in Venezuela. We found no records of the previously reported M. hypostoma during this study. Although the occurrence of M. hypostoma in Venezuela remains possible due to the broad regional range of this species, its current presence in Venezuela is invalidated given the repeated misidentifications which have occurred in previous publications. Our results increase the number of reported mobulid ray species in Venezuela to five (excluding M. hypostoma). The overall data from juvenile manta rays and pregnant M. mobular and M. thurstoni recorded in this study, combined with the occurrence of all but one species of mobulid ray found in the Western Atlantic Ocean, suggest Venezuela provides important habitat for this threatened family of rays.