Lindsey McLaurin, the senior stingray keeper at the Phoenix Zoo, noticed something special about an animal in her care. McLaurin was using hula hoops as an enrichment toy—adorably, rays love to swim through these hoops—when she realized that Annie, a southern cownose ray, kept returning again and again to a pink hula hoop.
Not a blue hoop. Not a yellow hoop. Just the pink one.
Annie loved her pink hoop so much she picked it up with her head and tried to move it away from the other rays.
McLaurin suspected that beneath Annie's flat exterior was a sharp mind. She began a program to train Annie to retrieve the hoop for treats. Within 30 minutes, the ray had her new trick down cold.
As McLaurin explained, that's fast for any animal, let alone a ray.
Annie the ray is pretty in pink. Photo Credit: Michael S. Nolan.
McLaurin swapped out the hula hoop for a smaller dive ring. Using the ring, Annie can now tote a GoPro video camera around her enclosure. While the other rays weren't trained, they learned to imitate Annie just by watching and have become filmmakers themselves.
Annie and the others now eagerly greet McLaurin when she gets into the water. McLaurin's enrichment and training program has been so successful that the rays are giving birth to more pups each year—it turns out hula hoops might be the ultimate ray aphrodisiac.
As McLaurin writes over at National Geographic, this proves that intelligence can be found in the most unlikely places. But, she cautions, there is a dark side to this discovery. Each year, thousands of rays are killed in sport fishing contests like those in the Chesapeake Bay. Not only are these "derbies" wasteful and unsustainable, they also target charming critters that can think, learn and love the color pink.