Team Manatee: A Community Working Together
Team Manatee: A Community Working Together to Assess and Protect Manatee Health and Habitat
The fourth annual manatee-health-assessment season kicked off on December 11, 2008, with stormy conditions as a wintry cold front blasted through Florida's Nature Coast (the inside curve of the State's west coast, stretching approximately from north of Tampa Bay to south of Tallahassee). Such storm fronts cool the coastal waters along the Gulf of Mexico, driving manatees to seek refuge in the numerous coastal springs of the region, where discharging ground water is at a constant temperature of 72°F (22°C). The large spring complexes at Kings Bay in Crystal River, Florida, attract large numbers of manatees every winter, making it an excellent site for capturing manatees and collecting data about their health. This year, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted health assessments and were part of a Department of the Interior (DOI) team that recognized local community support for manatee research, education, and protection.
The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, a marine mammal adapted to tropical and subtropical regions. Monitoring manatee health is required under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Act because of the animal's endangered status. Much of the northwest Florida coast is ideal manatee habitat during most of the year, but during the winter, water temperatures often go below optimal conditions for manatee survival. The constant flow of ground water discharging from the numerous springs in this coastal region provides important warm-water refuge for manatees during the winter months.
Many manatees depend on this spring flow and return to Crystal River regularly. When the same individual is caught repeatedly, scientists can track its health over time, much like giving it annual physical checkups.
Repeat catches provide data on vital signs and yield samples of tears, DNA, blood, urine, and feces for laboratory analysis. They also provide an opportunity to collect visual data on manatees, using such unique marks as boat scars to identify individuals. These data are incorporated into a large photo ID database used to research manatee life histories, migration patterns, and population dynamics. Pulling an aquatic mammal that weighs more than half a ton out of the water is a carefully choreographed operation requiring teamwork and experience. Generally, manatees are captured by using rescue boats designed specifically for hauling the large animals out of the water. The annual assessments, however, are large group efforts designed to examine as many manatees as possible over a short timeframe, and so small beaches are used as examining tables. The beaches are cleared of rocks and hard objects, and commonly a rug is placed over the sand to minimize any injury and make the manatee as comfortable as possible. The beaches are exposed only at low
tide, creating a short window of time for the health assessments.
"This year, we're transporting the manatees to a second beach so that we can begin netting the next manatee while the first one is being assessed," said USGS Sirenia Project biologist Bob Bonde, who leads the manatee captures. "This allows us to increase the number of manatees that we can examine."
The team sets up along a stretch of river near Three Sisters Springs within a fairly restricted area, making it easy to spot and capture manatees as they pass. A point person watches for an approaching manatee. With the help of a circling boat, the experienced capture crew nets the manatee, hauls it close to shore, transfers it onto a stretcher, and carefully transports the manatee onto the nearby beach. The highly skilled health-assessment team then conducts a detailed physical examination.
Some persons included in the video are non-USGS employees and there are no release forms on-file for these people. Please inq