On the trail of eagle rays: From left, Matt Ajemian and Matt Kenworthy  restraining a large pregnant eagle ray.
* Photo by James Whittaker
On the trail of eagle rays: From left, Matt Ajemian and Matt Kenworthy restraining a large pregnant eagle ray. * Photo by James Whittaker
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Marine Biologist Matt Ajemian spends a lot of his time sifting through excrement.

The researcher was in Bermuda this week collecting the natural waste from spotted eagle rays, to analyze their feeding habits.

It's a messy job but someone's got to do it. And coming into close contact with these beautiful creatures can be extremely rewarding - as the Bermuda Sun found out.

We were on board to take unique images of wild eagle rays in the first minutes of life as the research team inadvertently delivered two babies (see page 1).

"It was just an added bonus as far as the project is concerned but it was really cool to see," said the Alabama based scientist, who has been coming to Bermuda for the past two years to tag rays and study their behaviour.

Roughly eight inches long with a wing-span of almost a foot, bearing an uncanny resemblance to children's cartoon character Casper the Friendly Ghost, the miniature rays were perfect replicas of their mother .

The babies were born in stressful circumstances.

The research team had netted a large female ray, oblivious to the fact that it was about to give birth, and pulled it on board their Boston Whaler to tag and examine it.

Preserving habitats

It was getting a gastric lavage -  a procedure which involves having a hose inserted into the throat and water pulsed through the stomach to flush out the contents.

It's pretty gross and not much fun for the ray, but there's no lasting damage and accurate information on their diet and feeding habits is necessary in order to help preserve their habitats.

In this case, it seems, the stress of the procedure may have brought on the birth.

"It wasn't something we wanted to induce but they were ready. They were fully formed and as you saw they were splashing around in the water and looking pretty comfortable."

The babies were the latest additions to Harrington Sound's eagle ray population.

No-one knows for sure how many there are in the Sound, though experts estimate it could be up to 100.

Evaluating numbers and assessing their movements is another aspect of Ajemian's research.

Several rays have now been fitted with acoustic tags - that set off a signal every time they pass certain bouys in and around the Sound that have been fitted with hydrophones.

"Gateway buoys" either side of Flatts bridge alert the scientists every time they leave the sound.

One of the aims is to find out more about their movements around Bermuda and migratory patterns.

Ajemian is currently trying to get funding for aerial tracking and for the next phase of his project, which could involve creating an enclosure in Harrington Sound - a kind of Eagle Ray City, where the scientists can manipulate the environment and get constant access to information

"Very little is known about their foraging behaviour and how they impact bottom communities.

"It's a good idea to understand the role they play in shaping those communities," he said.

Dr. Thaddius Murdoch, head of the Bermuda Reef Ecosystem Assessment and Mapping Programme which is providing logistical support to Ajemian, said the results of the study could be extremely important. "If we want to protect them we need to know about their population structure, we need to know their affect on conch and shellfish populations. There may be too many eagle rays, there may be not enough.

"The report can be used to shape conservation

policy."