Researchers found that the health of rays living in touch tank is not negatively affected by their environment

By Kelli Bender
February 23, 2018 04:12 PM

The touch tank at the aquarium is the hot spot for kids of all ages to go rub elbows (and fins) with marine creatures.

But some animal lovers may wonder: Do the animals enjoy the constant pats and pokes? In the case of stingrays, the answer is maybe.

“We know that one of the big questions with these exhibits is, ‘What does it mean for the animal’?” Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, told Chicago Tonight. “And we know the animal’s not going to tell us.”

So instead of waiting for the rays to speak, Shedd decided to perform a study on close to 60 of their stingrays and found that the sea creatures are at least impartial to these interactions, and might even enjoy them.

Researchers examined 58 cownose rays living at touch tanks and off-exhibit tanks at Shedd over the course of a year. During regular check-ups, researchers tracked 38 health markers to see how living in a touch tank was affecting the rays’ heart rate, weight, blood cell count, cholesterol and more.

At the conclusion of the study, led by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium staff veterinarian Jimmy Johnson, researchers found the rays living in the touch tank have similar vitals to the rays living in the off-exhibit tank, aside from slight differences in heart rate, blood lactate levels and low-density lipoproteins.

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During this study, the aquarium also noticed a ray behavior that seems to suggest that the animals enjoy contact, often spotting the rays gliding over to interact with human by choice, especially when back rubs were involved.

“We think we have pretty strong evidence that they don’t get anything negative out of it,” Van Bonn said. “In fact, there’s evidence that they do get something out of it and they seem to enjoy it.”