Mohsen Rezaie-Atagholipour

Iran - The Tentacled Butterfly Ray Comes Back from the Dead

Presumed extinct, scientists were shocked to find the species holding out in the water off Iran.

On a sultry autumn afternoon in 2019, as fishermen hauled in a net of Persian Gulf shrimp, Mohsen Rezaie-Atagholipour stood by waiting to sort through the scraps. A marine biologist at Iran’s Qeshm Environmental Conservation Institute, Rezaie-Atagholipour was scouting for the sharks and rays that the fishermen accidentally snagged in their nets. But as he weighed and measured several familiar creatures—collecting data for Iran’s first shark and ray conservation program—something unexpected caught his eye: a small olive green ray with two tiny tentacles just below its eyes. The biologist looked at the creature in disbelief: “I found the tentacled butterfly ray.”

In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the tentacled butterfly ray as critically endangered, and possibly extinct. The last time anyone had recorded seeing one was in 1986, off Pakistan. The species was thought to have been wiped out across its range, from the Red Sea to the western Bay of Bengal. Unfortunately, the animal Rezaie-Atagholipour found was dead.

“All of the researchers we’ve spoken to who work in India, Pakistan, and the region, have never seen it, and they’ve been working there for quite a long time,” says Rima Jabado, a marine scientist and founder of the United Arab Emirates–based Elasmo Project, who worked with Rezaie-Atagholipour and others to document the discovery in a new paper. “We’re excited it is still in Iran.”

But from that initial, surprising discovery, the tentacled butterfly rays just kept turning up. Between October 2019 and November 2020, Rezaie-Atagholipour surveyed 96 hauls from shrimp trawlers operating in the Gulf of Oman and the eastern Persian Gulf and found a total of 367 tentacled butterfly rays in 39 catches. The species made up nearly 15 percent of all the rays in the by-catch.

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