Just in time for the rosiest holiday of the year, another diver has snapped a rare photo of Inspector Clouseau, the world’s only known pink manta ray.
First spotted lurking in the waters off Australia’s Lady Elliot Island in late 2015, the 11-foot male fish—cheekily named for the detective in the Pink Panther franchise—has been glimpsed only a handful of times since, reports Bethany Augliere for National Geographic. So rare are the sightings that Kristian Laine, the photographer behind Clouseau’s most recent close-up, was certain the ray’s coloration was an artifact of malfunctioning camera equipment.
“At first I was very confused,” Laine tells Angela Heathcote at Australian Geographic. “I actually thought my strobes were playing up.”
Clouseau was concealed by seven other male manta rays, all flashing more typical white undersides. According to Australian Geographic, the fishy octet had assembled to vie for the attention of a nearby female—an elaborate courtship ritual that typically involves a lady ray releasing pheromones into the water before zooming away, triggering a train of males into giving chase.
The rose-tinted ray has been raising eyebrows since dive instructor Ryan Jeffery first documented Clouseau’s existence in photo form five years ago, Rachel Riga reported for Australia’s ABC News in 2015. Online images of Clouseau quickly caught the attention of the Project Manta research group, which has been investigating the cause of the flamboyant fish’s pinkish skin ever since.
Based on Jeffery’s account of Clouseau’s serene demeanor, Project Manta researcher Kathy Townsend told ABC News that stress, which sometimes ruddies up the bellies of sharks and rays, was probably an unlikely culprit. The next year, a small biopsy of the ray, taken by team member Amelia Armstrong, ruled out a skin infection or an unusually red-pigment-heavy diet as potential causes as well.
Through process of elimination, Project Manta is now pursuing a different hypothesis. Perhaps Clouseau’s coral blush is the result of a genetic mutation that affects skin pigmentation, researcher Asia Haines tells National Geographic.
Such mutations are fairly common in the animal world, including among fish, as well as humans with albinism. One variant called erythrism can give skin a reddish or pinkish hue, yielding strawberry-blonde leopards and fuschia grasshoppers.
Among manta rays, though, Clouseau’s condition is a first, and a marked departure from the typical grayscale motif. Many rays boast a black back and a white belly as dual camouflage, disappearing into the shadowy waters below when glimpsed from above, while blending into the shimmering sunlit surface when viewed from below.
But Clouseau’s unusual colors probably won’t get him into trouble, Guy Stevens, co-founder of the United Kingdom’s Manta Trust, tells National Geographic. At their gargantuan sizes, manta rays have only the most plus-sized of predators to fear, and many survive decades in the wild. So far, Clouseau seems to be staying hidden—after all, he’s done a pretty decent job eluding our prying eyes thus far.
About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine’s 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.