May 15, 2008 / 2:55 AM / 10 years ago

Canadian zoo investigates puzzling stingray deaths

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Officials at the Calgary Zoo remained baffled on Tuesday as they tried to puzzle out just why 34 of their stingrays suddenly died.

<p>A boy watches a stingray during a preview at the new Sea Life aquarium in Hanover February 21, 2007. REUTERS/Christian Charisius</p>

The juvenile cownose stingrays, about the size of a dinner plate, were kept in a “petting” tank where visitors were able to touch them, a common feature in a number of North American zoos and aquariums, according to the zoo officials in the Western Canadian city.

On Sunday, within a few hours of opening, the normally voracious fish lost their appetites, became discolored and started dying, with 34 of the 43 rays quickly succumbing to an ailment or cause that has yet to be diagnosed.

“It was a very acute onset of something, a very sudden change,” said Cathy Gaviller, director of conservation, research and education for the Calgary Zoo. “It was high mortality in a very short period of time.”

The zoo, as yet, has no real idea of what happened to the rays, which are common in the waters off North America’s east coast.

Water tests show there were no problems with the tank or its filtration system, though the zoo has also sent off samples for independent testing.

Gaviller said that because of the speed of the deaths, disease or parasites were unlikely causes, but nothing is being ruled out. However results from tissue and toxicology tests won’t soon be ready.

“It’s unfortunate that we have very few facts,” she said. “But the No. 1 likelihood is that something in the water changed suddenly.”

She added that there were no signs that a zoo visitor caused the rays’ deaths.

The incident is the latest in a number of animal deaths at the zoo that have sparked criticism of the facility.

A hippopotamus being moved to Calgary from Denver, Colorado, died in October. As well, a baby gorilla died in August after other gorilla disrupted the mother’s nursing routine.

Reporting by Scott Haggett; editing by Rob Wilson

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