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What is a Skate?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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A skate is a cartilaginous fish that is most closely related to rays and sharks. Unlike rays and sharks, every skate species is completely harmless to humans. Like rays, skates tend to skim along the bottoms of shallow ocean areas, eating mostly tiny fish and crustaceans.

There are about 200 species of skates in the world, and they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from rays. Some have more rounded bodies than the often rhombus or diamond shaped ray, but others are extremely similar in shape. Some primary differences can be noted in the tail of skates, which lack a spine. Male skates can be noted for their enlarged scales near their eyes and on the tips of their wings.

Reproductive behavior of the skate also differs from that of the ray. Skates lay eggs in a small formation called a mermaids purse. Rays, on the other hand, give birth to live young. Additionally, the skate typically has prominent dorsal fins, which are usually absent in the ray.

Both skates and rays are relatively flat, and may be difficult to spot in shallow sandy areas, unless you accidentally attempt to step on one. Then they can move with due rapidity. The skate is considered extremely docile, and its small teeth pose no threat to humans. A few rays, though they are also considered fairly innocuous can sting with their tails or deliver electric shocks.

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The different species of skates can be found throughout most of the world’s oceans, and they exhibit extraordinary size variance. The little skate, for example is only one to two feet (30.48- 60.96 cm) long. Some skates are a great deal larger — the largest skate in North American waters is called, unimaginatively, the Big Skate. It is impressive in size, up to eight feet (2.44 m) in length, and can weigh up to 200 pounds (90.72 kg).

The skate can vary in color, and has two interesting round markings, at about mid-body that look like eyes. Skates can be grey, brown or multicolored, and often blend very well with the sandy ocean floor. This camouflage helps the skate hide from its main predators, large sharks. The skate has little defense against a shark except to hide and hope it won’t be noticed.

Sometimes the skate is harvested for food, but many species of sharks are much more likely to be overfished. In fact, in 2007, several ecologists came together to theorize that by continuing to destroy top predators, like sharks, both the skate and ray populations have significantly increased. Growing numbers of skates and rays have placed a strain on their own food sources, resulting in a reduction in population of some of people’s favorite types of shellfish, like scallops.

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