Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


College of Science and Mathematics



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Colette J. Feehan

Committee Member

Cortni Borgerson

Committee Member

Julian Paul Keenan


Touch tanks are increasingly popular exhibits at zoos and aquariums, and are at the center of scientific engagement with the public. Touch tanks can provide benefits to marine species through conservation outreach and research, and to guests through education, recreation, and stress reduction. Cownose rays are a popular species found in touch tanks due to their putative stress tolerance and docile nature. Yet, questions remain about ray tolerance to captivity, and studies are rare on their behavioral responses to touch tank environments and guest interactions. Here, I used an observational study to examine: (1) baseline ray behavior in a touch tank environment; (2) how rays in the touch tank respond to guest interactions, including apparent stress responses; and (3) whether rays demonstrate individual variation in these responses. I found that captive rays spent less than 4% of their time interacting with guests and displayed a range of typical ray behaviors, had an increase in stress behaviors with guest crowding, were more likely to approach a hand with food than without food, preferred adult over child guest interactions, and varied individually in their responses and apparent stress tolerance to guest interactions. Based on these findings, I recommend that guest numbers should be limited and that the suitability of rays for touch tanks should be individually assessed and monitored. This study of guest-ray interactions gives us crucial insight into ray behavior that can lead to improved management of captive rays, conservation opportunities for wild rays, and an enhanced guest experience.

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Biology Commons