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What is a Skate?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a skate and how does it differ from a ray?

Skates are cartilaginous fish belonging to the family Rajidae in the superorder Batoidea, closely related to rays and sharks. Unlike rays, skates typically have a fleshier tail without a stinging spine and lay eggs in leathery cases known as "mermaid's purses." Rays, on the other hand, often give live birth and may possess venomous spines for defense.

Where can skates be found in the ocean?

Skates inhabit a wide range of oceanic environments, from shallow coastal waters to the deep sea. They are benthic creatures, meaning they live on or near the ocean floor. Skates are found in many parts of the world, with some species preferring cold waters, like those around Antarctica, while others are found in warmer seas.

What do skates eat, and how do they find their food?

Skates are carnivorous and feed on a variety of sea creatures such as mollusks, crustaceans, small fish, and worms. They have specialized sensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini that detect electrical signals emitted by their prey. Skates often use their wing-like pectoral fins to disturb the substrate and uncover hidden prey.

How do skates reproduce, and what is unique about their reproductive process?

Skates have a fascinating reproductive process where they lay eggs in protective cases, often referred to as "mermaid's purses." These cases are equipped with horns at the corners for anchorage. After laying, the eggs are left to develop on the ocean floor, with young skates emerging fully formed after a period that can range from several months to over a year, depending on the species and water temperature.

Are skates endangered, and what threats do they face?

Some skate species are considered endangered due to overfishing, habitat destruction, and bycatch. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), certain species are at high risk of extinction in the wild. Conservation efforts are crucial to protect these species, including the implementation of fishing quotas and the establishment of marine protected areas.

Can skates be kept in aquariums, and what are their requirements?

While some smaller species of skates can be kept in public aquariums, they require large tanks with plenty of space to accommodate their size and swimming behavior. Skates need a sandy or smooth substrate to prevent injury to their undersides, high-quality water conditions, and a diet that mimics their natural food sources. Private ownership is generally not recommended due to their complex care requirements.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia...
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