76 Tribulus Vol. 25 - 2017
Observations of rays and guitarsh (Batoidea) in shallow waters around
Siniya Island, Umm al-Qaiwain, United Arab Emirates
by Roxanne Whelan, Rima W. Jabado, Chris Clarke & Sabir Bin Muzaffar
Nearshore, shallow waters are highly productive
habitats supporting a rich diversity of species and are
considered extremely valuable ecosystems providing
high quality goods and services to the environment and
economy (Knip et al. 2010; Davy et al. 2015). Many
species of sharks and rays use shallow habitats and their
presence is a crucial component in shaping ecosystem
dynamics (Frisk 2010; Knip et al. 2010).
Globally, sharks and rays face a variety of threats from
shing, habitat degradation, climate change and pollution
(Simpfendorfer et al. 2011) with reports suggesting
that rays, guitarshes, and sawshes have the highest
number of species considered threatened with extinction
on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Dulvy et
al. 2014). With K-selected life histories - long-lived, slow
growing and producing few offspring, batoids are highly
vulnerable to over-exploitation (Frisk 2010; Stevens et
al. 2000). According to Dulvy et al. (2014), of the 539
species of skates and rays assessed by the IUCN, 3%
are considered Endangered, 6% Vulnerable and Near
Threatened respectively, and 25% are Data Decient. The
combined effect of shing, habitat loss and degradation
exposes many of these coastal species to decline (Dulvy
et al. 2014), whilst overshing has ecosystem-wide
consequences (Stevens et al. 2000).
The Arabian Gulf is a unique shallow, semi-enclosed
marine ecosystem, with extreme environmental conditions
and extensive shallow areas of less than 20m (Sheppard
et al. 1992; Naser 2014). This basin is surrounded by one
of the most anthropogenically impacted regions in the
world with continuous pressure due to oil exploitation,
desalination plants, and rapid, large-scale coastal
development as well as concomitant loss of important
marine habitats (e.g. mangroves) (Halpern et al. 2008; Van
Lavieren et al. 2011; Naser 2014). Population growth and
urbanisation in close proximity to the coast compounded by
limited environmental policies or management action have
increased these threats to the marine environment (Van
Nearshore, shallow water habitats are believed to be highly important for various species of threatened sharks and
rays (batoids) around the world. Yet, there is limited information on which batoid species use them. During eldwork
on Siniya Island in the Emirate of Umm al-Qaiwain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), rays and guitarsh were observed on
twelve occasions in shallow waters or found stranded along the shoreline. At least three species were identied from
at least 20 individuals (adults and juveniles) consisting of the Arabian banded whipray, Maculabatis randalli, the Halavi
guitarsh, Glaucostegus halavi, and cowtail rays, Pastinachus sp. Our observations highlight the importance of shallow
water habitats for at least these batoids. Many coastal habitats in the UAE and broader region are currently threatened
by development projects and other anthropogenic activities, highlighting the urgent need to better understand their role
in maintaining shallow subtidal biodiversity.
Keywords Batoids • Elasmobranch • Littoral zone • Arabian Gulf • Coastal development • Conservation
Lavieren et al. 2011). The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has
experienced rapid coastal development, particularly with
mega-projects and multi-use articial islands changing
the marine ecology and exposing biodiversity to unknown
long-term, irreversible consequences (Hamza and
Munawar 2009; Cressey 2011; Van Lavieren et al. 2011).
Fishing activities in the Arabian Gulf are largely artisanal
but batoids are often incidentally caught while targeting other
species and are mostly discarded (Sivasubramaniam and
Ibrahim 1983; Jabado et al. 2014b). While there has been
an increase in elasmobranch studies and observations in
the region and particularly in the Arabian Gulf (Jabado et
al. 2014a, b; Last et al. 2012; Moore and Pierce 2013;
Robinson et al. 2013), there is still limited research on
batoids. In fact, batoids have long been considered the
most taxonomically problematic of all elasmobranch groups
(Last et al. 2016). The limited information that is available
on most species is confounded with misidentications
making any available data of limited use. Last et al.
(2016) provided the rst comprehensive identication
guide to batoids of the world which includes a number of
taxonomic and nomenclatural decisions to remove the
current ambiguity in the existing classications. Specic to
species occurring in the Arabian Gulf and those covered in
this paper, the genus Rhinobatos is no longer considered
monophyletic and two rhinopristiform families were
erected, namely Glaucostegidae and Trygonorrhinidae
(Last et al. 2016). While nomenclatural issues still exist in
the genus Himantura, it has been subdivided into seven
genera, namely Brevitrygon, Fluvitrygon, Fontitrygon,
Maculabatis, Pateobatis, Himantura, and Urogymnus (Last
et al. 2016). Here we report the occurrence of ray species
that are endemic to the Arabian region from around Siniya
Island in order to record our observations and increase our
knowledge of the spatial ecology of these species in the
77Tribulus Vol. 25 - 2017
Materials and Methods
Siniya Island (25°36’20.63”N
55°36’28.85”E) in Umm al-Qaiwain
(UAE) is 13 km long, located 2 km
offshore (Figure 1), and surrounded
by a variety of habitats - very shallow
waters, seagrass beds, mangroves,
and lagoon inlets. Situated in one of
the least developed Emirates, Siniya
has restricted access and remains
one of the last untouched wetland/
mangrove areas in the UAE. It has been
classied by BirdLife International as
an ‘Important Bird Area’ (Hellyer 2016),
with thousands of migrating shorebirds
visiting every year, and the largest
breeding colony of regionally endemic
Socotra cormorants (Phalacrocorax
nigrogularis) in the Arabian Gulf
(Muzaffar et al. 2017). Figure 1 Map indicating location of Siniya Island, United Arab Emirates within the
Between March 2014 and November 2016, while monitoring the Socotra cormorant breeding colony on Siniya
Island, batoid observations were recorded. Videos or photographs of specimens were taken when possible, and data
including time, depth and approximate size (Disc Width (DW) or Total Length (TL)) were collected. Identication of
specimens was based on Randall and Compagno 1995; Last et al. 2012; Last et al. 2016.
Figure 2 (a) Maculabatis randalli in shallow waters (b) Maculabatis randalli, bite marks on rear of pectoral disc
(circled) (c) Pastinachus sp. (d) A juvenile Glaucostegus halavi in shallow waters (e) Relatively fresh specimen of
Glaucostegus halavi found ashore.
78 Tribulus Vol. 25 - 2017
Results and Discussion
A total of twelve observations were recorded consisting
of at least 20 animals from three species, the Arabian
banded whipray (Maculabatis randalli), the Halavi guitarsh
(Glaucostegus halavi) and at least one species of cowtail
ray (Pastinachus sp.) (Table 1). It is believed that two
species from the genus Pastinachus occur in the Arabian
Gulf, the Feathertail stingray, P. ater, and the Cowtail
stingray, P. sephen (Moore 2012; Henderson et al. 2016;
Last et al. 2016). Until recently, this genus was thought to
consist of a single widespread species but recent research
has indicated that there are several species (Last et al.
2016). Although they have a characteristic ventral skin
fold on the tail with a stinging spine making them easy
to identify, the dishevelled state of the dead specimens
documented in this study did not allow identication to
species level (Figure 2c).
Six live observations were made between 06.30 –
10.00am in shallow waters up to 1m (e.g. Figure 2a) and
included specimens of M. randalli (n=3 encounters) and
G. halavi (n=3 encounters). The remaining six specimens
were found on land and consisted of two fresh G. halavi
near shore, most likely stranded on the sandbar when
the tide receded (Figure 2e), two M. randalli and two
Pastinachus sp. further inland (e.g. Figure 2d). Based on
the sizes of the specimens observed (Table 1) and their
reported size at maturity (Randall and Compagno 1995;
Last et al. 2012; Last et al. 2016), it is likely these animals
were juveniles. These species were not present in other
surveyed localities nearby and it is therefore possible
that this area is used due to its shallow, sheltered nature
behind sandbars (observed at low tide). On one occasion,
an aggregation of up to six M. randalli individuals within a
3x3m area was observed. Behaviour consisting of chasing,
close-following, mounting, and two individuals ‘ventral to
ventral’ was recorded. Bite markings were observed on
the rear margin of the pectoral disc (Figure 2b). Chapman
et al. (2003) documented similar behaviour in the southern
stingray, Dasyatis americana, and suggested they were
characteristic of mating events. While these observations
do not necessarily infer the occurrence of a nursery or
breeding area (Heupel et al. 2007), they warrant further
investigations to determine the importance of the shallow
waters around Siniya Island during the various life stages
of these species.
Despite the relative abundance of these three species
in coastal waters of the UAE, little information is available
on their life histories and ecology. Last et al. (2012) report
that M. randalli is probably endemic to the Arabian Gulf
and, while it is not commercially valuable, it is often a
by-catch in gillnet sheries. Glaucostegus halavi is listed
as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is generally
retained by shermen due to the high value of its ns
(Simpfendorfer et al. 2017). Finally, P. ater and P. sephen
are listed as Least Concern and Near Threatened (Kyne
et al. 2017; Morgan et al. 2016), respectively. Populations
of these species are increasingly threatened in the region
with little information available on their biology and ecology
(Simpfendorfer et al. 2017; Kyne et al. 2017; Morgan et al.
2016). The observations reported here support the need to
address these data gaps and highlight the importance of
understanding the ecology and spatial structure of batoids
in the Arabian Gulf.
The nature of shallow waters offers sheltered
environments for batoids at all life stages, and such waters
Date Species name Numbers Approximate
size (cm) Comments
11.03.2014 Maculabatis randalli 4 ˜60cm DW Alive, adult
31.03.2014 Pastinachus sp. 1 <30cm DW Dead, shrivelled
28.04.2014 Pastinachus sp. 1 <30cm DW Dead, shrivelled
15.09.2015 Maculabatis randalli 2-6 ˜60cm DW Alive, adults
14.12.2015 Maculabatis randalli 1 ˜50cm DW Alive, adult
17.01.2016 Glaucostegus halavi 1 90cm TL Dead, relatively fresh,
12.04.2016 Maculabatis randalli
30.05.2016 Maculabatis randalli 1 <30cm DW Dead, shrivelled, juvenile
25.10.2016 Glaucostegus halavi 1 ˜30cm TL Alive, juvenile
25.10.2016 Glaucostegus halavi 1 ˜30cm TL Dead, relatively fresh,
25.10.2016 Maculabatis randalli 1 <50cm DW Dead, shrivelled, juvenile
17.11.2016 Glaucostegus halavi 2-3 <30cm TL Alive, juveniles
Table 1 Records of batoids observed around Siniya Island by date, species, numbers of individuals and
approximate sizes (DW: Disc Width; TL: Total length)
79Tribulus Vol. 25 - 2017
are used for foraging, aggregating, and breeding. Coastal
development and habitat degradation increases risk to
batoids due to their biological traits, high susceptibility
to disturbance and coastal habitat specicity (Knip et al.
2010; Dulvy et al. 2014). Nearshore habitats are identied
as crucial for juveniles and therefore conservation of
these areas may avoid negative ecosystem effects and
help maintain ray populations (Davy et al. 2015). The
decline or loss of batoids is likely to also have direct
and indirect cascading ecological consequences on the
marine ecosystem (Stevens et al. 2000; Simpfendorfer
et al. 2011). It is essential that social, ecological, and
economic research aspects underpin and inform effective
conservation management initiatives (Simpfendorfer et al.
2011). The shallow waters around Siniya Island appear to
be a small but important area for adults and juveniles of
several species. Such areas need to be protected from
development and disturbance to ensure the conservation
of local and regional marine biodiversity.
Batoids are understudied within the Arabian Gulf
region and those observed and recorded here add to our
knowledge of their spatial ecology, and the importance
of shallow waters. Siniya Island appears to provide good
habitat and attracts individuals at all life stages, but mostly
Access to Siniya Island was granted and provided by
the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (Umm al-
Qaiwain Marine Environment Research Centre). Funding
for eldwork on Siniya Island was from the United Arab
Emirates University Programme for Advanced Research
(UPAR) grant (31S166) to one of the authors (SBM).
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Department of Biology,
United Arab Emirates University
PO Box 15551, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates
Rima W. Jabado
Gulf Elasmo Project
P.O. Box 29588, Dubai, UAE
Department of Biology
United Arab Emirates University
PO Box 15551
Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.
S.B. Muzaffar, UAE University