The mysterious case of the missing manta bits

This spectacular picture has been doing the rounds of my Facebook network lately, of a Mr Bell at AMNH working on a manta ray specimen in 1917:


Woah, right?  Helluva fish.  Well, hold your horses there, Tex.  It’s actually a model.  I was a bit suspicious that the specimen was just so…perfect…so I dug around a bit and hey presto:

There’s Mr. Bell again, working on the model at an earlier stage.  And here:



Spectacular photos to be sure, and mantas DO grow that big, but I think most folks on the Facebook have been thinking this was a real specimen, based on the photo circulating.

Which led me to look again at  another famous manta photo.  This one:

I had never questioned this photo, it was just THAT manta photo that everyone in the biz knows.  BUT, on further examination I grew suspicious here too.  One thing I had always marveled at was how the fins were so straight out.  If you’ve ever seen a dead ray out of water, they’re generally pretty floppy.  Especially the big ones; they just can’t support theirown bodies out of water.  But then I got another hint from the text in the 2nd paragraph; the bit about it being mounted for display.  I went looking for a better pic and found this: 


A few things give it away as being a model and not an actual specimen. First, there’s a seam from wing tip to wing tip.  Second, behind the right gills there are some puckers in whatever they clad it with, presumably cloth.  But most obviously – to me anyway – IT HAS NO ANUS.  On the ventral side of a manta, just in front of the base of the tail (behind the little white square in this photo), should be a v-shaped cloaca.  So, a case of Edwardian prudishness gave the game away.  Having finally twigged, I realised the little one the man is holding, which was supposedly born post-mortem, looks as fake as a rubber chicken.

EDIT:  I did a bit more sleuthing and found this:

“This signed photo postcard shows “THE GREAT MANTA” that was captured by Captain A.L. Kahn on August 26, 1933. The huge ray was reported to have weighed over 5,000 pounds and measured more than 20 feet across the wing. The critter was caught when it became fouled in the anchor line of the “MISS PENSACOLA II” and was unable to free itself. The ray was towed to Feuerbach and Hansen’s Marina in Brielle, New Jersey where it was hoisted ashore with a travel lift.”

Also this flyer from when the 1933 model went on display (although, frustratingly it doesnt say WHERE), which I believe contains a picture of the REAL manta in the upper left, with suitably floppy wings.  Apparently the coast guard shot it 22 times with a rifle.

So there it is: two famous manta pics that aren’t. They are amazing animals, but these are both models, with nevertheless interesting back stories.


Alistair Dove (149 Posts)

Dr. Alistair Dove is a systematic and ecological parasitologist by training, with broader research interests in the natural history and health of marine animals, especially whale sharks. He is currently Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. His comments here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Georgia Aquarium

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