A stingray that seemed to be laughing as it was tickled in a viral TikTok video was actually “suffocating to death”, experts have said.
The clip, published on June 7, features a baby stingray opening its mouth wide as a person touches its belly with gloved hands.
It attracted more than 100 million views with thousands commenting on the seemingly sweet encounter.
But experts have now said the expression on the marine creature’s face is indicative of the animal suffocating to death.
Some viewers also pointed out that perceiving the stingray as smiling is a classic example of anthropomorphisation – the tendency to project human characteristics onto animals.
In reality, the situation would have been distressing for the stingray, Aaron Shepard, a researcher at NASA, said.
“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.
The two dots above the stingray’s mouth are not eyes but nostrils and the contraction of them signals the animal is struggling to breathe.
The animal’s movement of these body parts in response to the tickle could have been its distress response.
“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.