Rare pink manta ray caught courting lady friend Down Under

Photos of a bright pink manta ray have gone viral after the Pepto-Bismol-colored creature was spotted swimming near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Photographer Kristian Laine, who snapped the photos while was freediving near Lady Elliot Island, initially thought that his camera was broken, National Geographic reported. Later, Laine learned that he had laid eyes on what may be the world's only pink manta ray — a fish comically named Inspector Clouseau, after the klutzy detective in the "The Pink Panther" movies.

Despite his stunning hue, the inspector has been seen fewer than 10 times since he was first spotted in 2015, National Geographic reported. (You can see a 2015 video of the inspector on The Guardian.)

Related: The pink and white album: Amazing albino animals

When biologists at Australia's Project Manta first learned about Inspector Clouseau, they suspected that the ray got its pink color from a skin infection or a strange meal, much like how a pink flamingo gets its rosy feathers from eating algae filled with beta carotene, a compound that contains a reddish-orange pigment.

But when the research group managed to collect a small skin biopsy from the pink ray in 2016, they learned the cause was something else entirely: the ray likely has a genetic mutation, Asia Haines, a research assistant at Project Manta, told National Geographic.  

Perhaps the manta ray has erythrism, a condition that causes animals to have a high amount of red pigment on their bodies, Solomon David, an aquatic ecologist at Louisiana's Nicholls State University, told National Geographic. 

Other animals with erythrism include this strawberry-blonde leopard and these bubble-gum-pink grasshoppers.

At the time of the the impromptu photo-op, Inspector Clouseau and several other male manta rays were courting a female. While other manta rays are all black, all white, or black and white, which help them evade predators and stalk prey, their pink comrade appeared to be doing just fine.

That's likely because at 11-foot-long (3.3 meters), the inspector is a big beast. As elephants clearly demonstrate, being large is a defense unto itself

Originally published on Live Science.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.