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Secretive Skates

Welcome back to Ask a Naturalist: your own personal ‘Google’ for all things wild on PEI!

I recently received some photos from Pamela Jane, who found this animal washed up on shore and wondered what it was (Photo 1). This is a Skate, either a Little Skate (Leucoraja erinacea) – one of the more common species in our area – or the rarer Winter Skate (Leucoraja ocellata).

Photo 1: A Skate (Leucoraja sp.) washed up on a PEI shore. Photo by Pamela Jane, used with permission,

Although more than a dozen species of Skates are known from Atlantic Canadian waters, most of us rarely see them. We are much more likely to find a Skate’s egg case – commonly called a ‘Mermaid’s Purse’ – washed up on shore (Photo 2). Skates (and their more famous relatives, Stingrays) are bottom-dwelling fish that use their large pectoral fins to both “fly” through the water and excavate the seafloor to expose buried prey such as worms, mollusks, and other invertebrates. These well-camouflaged animals are also effective ambush predators, and Skates will lay hidden on the seafloor waiting for tasty shrimp, crabs, or finfish to pass by. Skates can be found from shallow, near-shore waters to depths of up to 100 metres (330 feet).

Photo 2: Egg cases of the Little Skate (left) and Winter Skate (right). Locally, these are often called "Mermaid's Purses". Photo credit on image.

There is surprisingly little known about the life history of Skates, including how long they live, their age at maturity, how many eggs they produce, or where their spawning areas are. Fortunately, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia has an active research program looking at these and other topics. You may not get a chance to see one of these mysterious, interesting animals in person but do keep your eyes open for their Mermaid’s Purses as you walk along our Island shores.

If you have a question about PEI’s wild side, it’s likely others do too! So, follow me here or on Facebook, join the conversation, and Ask a Naturalist about PEI untamed!

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