USC marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend researching manta rays at Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef
USC marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend researching manta rays at Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef Contributed

USC manta ray study reaches 10-year milestone

SHE'S spent nearly 10 years studying manta rays off the coast of Wide Bay, but marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend said there are still "many unanswered questions” about the enigmatic sea creatures.

Her research program Project Manta, dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge about manta rays, reached a milestone tenth season studying the animals at Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.

The project started at Lady Elliot Island and North Stradbroke Island, before expanding into a national partnership between USC, the University of Queensland, Murdoch University and Deakin University and industry partners.

Dr Townsend, a marine biologist with USC, said the project had led to more awareness of the animal's ecology and biology, and had built a national database of more than 2000 rays.

USC marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend researching manta rays at Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef
USC marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend researching manta rays at Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef Contributed

"The dot and spot patterns of the manta's underbelly are like a fingerprint, allowing researchers to use photographs of these markings to identify individual rays,” Dr Townsend said.

"About two-thirds of the database has come from recreational divers, who are the eyes of this project around Australia.

"Thanks to citizen scientists, we recently logged the longest recorded movement of two male mantas, first photographed off Brisbane and again 1000km away off the Townsville coast.”

However, she said there were still unanswered questions like how many were in Australia, their lifespan and how far they travel.

20 research projects are underway with acoustic and satellite tagging used to measure migration patterns.

Project Manta's pin-up boy is Taurus, a black manta who was among the large group of males recorded courting females on the latest field study on Lady Elliot Island.

"Taurus is the oldest known animal in our database and was first photographed at the island in 1983, making him over 40-years-old and giving an indication of the manta's life span,” Dr Townsend said.



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