Unique to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the pink manta ray has been seen swimming in waters near Lady Elliot Island. Pic Supplied: Kristian Laine
Lady Elliot Island is the southernmost coral cay of the Great Barrier Reef. Pic ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos
Kathy Townsend has been researching why the pink manta ray has its unique colouring. Pic: ABC Wide Bay: Brad Marsellos
The mutant pink ray could lead to a whole new breed of pink manta in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. A skin sample helped researchers understand that diet has not played a role in making the manta ray pink. Pic Supplied: Amelia Armstrong
25 May 21
From the Strange Sea Story file: "He's usually flirting with the females and his body condition is good so we don't think it's an illness.”
A vibrant pink manta ray glides through the turquoise ocean off Lady Elliot Island in the southernmost island of the Great Barrier Reef.
The three-metre manta ray has only been seen seven times since it was discovered in 2015, and much remains a mystery about this mutant creature.
Named Inspector Clouseau after the incompetent detective from the series, Pink Panther, this ray definitely boasts character.
Kathy Townsend, a senior lecturer in animal ecology at the University of the Sunshine Coast and head scientist with Project Manta, has been among the research team searching for the enigmatic fish.
She said the leading theory behind its pink colour variation was a mutation in melanin levels.
"We suspect it probably is a mutation in the pigments of the skin," Dr Townsend said. "He's got black colour pigment. It's just something has gone on with his white colour pigment."
Dr Townsend said two previous theories had been ruled out through testing a biopsy from the ray.
"He could have been unwell with a skin infection, but we've since seen him pretty much every year in August and every time he's the same bright colour pink," she said.
"He's usually flirting with the females and his body condition is good so we don't think it's an illness.
"It could have been hypervascularisation — when the blood vessels are very high to the surface — making it a pink colour instead of white, [but we] compared that to a normal manta ray and it turns out they're exactly the same.
"Inspector Clouseau is important for science because we've never seen a manta ray like this before."
'I thought it was a joke'
Photographer Kristian Laine was lucky enough to spot the manta ray on a recent trip to the island.
The Gold Coast photographer said the bright fuchsia belly of the manta ray took him by surprise.
"We went to the restaurant at Lady Elliot Island that night and there was this noticeboard where I saw a photo of Inspector Clouseau and at first I thought it was a joke," Mr Laine said.
"I remembered that all my photos were pink … and realised I must've captured something unique, rare and awesome. I was pretty stoked.
"It's so good to share awareness around the world because when people that are not into ocean animals see these photos I think they can relate to something cute."
Project Manta research assistant, Asia Armstrong, said she still had not seen the creature in the flesh.
"I've been on the island sitting in front of my computer, cataloguing manta rays, when people have come back from a dive with photos of Inspector Clouseau, but I'm yet to see him myself so I'll have to keep searching," she said.
"I'll probably scream really loudly [If I do see him]."
A family of pink mantas?
While Inspector Clouseau has been the only recorded pink manta ray, each time he has been sighted he has been seen courting females.
Dr Townsend said it was not yet known whether the pink pigment could be passed on to offspring.
"We will most certainly be keeping an eye out [for] if there are any other pink mantas in future," she said.
"We're looking for somebody who is expert enough for us to be able to pass over the biopsy sample to explore that possibility that it is a genuine mutation.
"Quite honestly I think a pink manta ray is slightly more exciting than a white whale."
AUTHORS: NICOLE HEGARTY & BRAD MARSELLOS
SOURCE: ABC NEWS WIDE BAY, AUSTRALIA
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