On 7 June, a TikTok user posted a video of what appears to be a baby stingray laying on its back on a boat, as the person, with gloved hands, proceeds to tickle the belly of the aquatic creature.
In response to the tickle, the ray, which is out of water in the video, can be seen curling up its wings, opening its mouth and forming shape similar to what humans do when they smile.
Experts now say the stingray’s response in this video, which went viral with over 100 million views, is indicative of it suffocating to death.
“This stingray is clearly suffocating to death. The scientific literature is quite clear. Like all fish, stingrays have the capacity to feel pain,” Ben Williamson, the programmes director of the nonprofit organisation World Animal Protection in the US, told Insider.
Some social media users also pointed out that the perception of the ray as “smiling” when tickled is a classic example of anthropomorphization when people attribute human emotions to animal expressions.
In the TikTok video, the two dots above the ray’s mouth are not its eyes but are actually its nostrils, and the underside where the person tickled the animal also has the gills which it uses to breathe under water.
The animal’s movement of these body parts in response to the tickle could have been its distress response for being touched there while already struggling to breathe.
“Like all wild animals, stingrays should be left alone to live out their lives in peace, free from human interference and harmful hobbies, such as sportfishing,” Mr Williamson added.