1. The Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is a large-bodied marine mammal found in fresh, brackish, and marine habitats throughout the Caribbean Islands and Central and South America. Antillean manatees in Brazil are classified as critically endangered, with a census size of approximately 500 individuals. The population in the Northeast region of Brazil is suspected to have approximately 300 manatees and is threatened by habitat alteration and incidental entanglement in fishing gear.
2. A high incidence of dependent calf strandings have been identified near areas of altered critical manatee habitat. The majority of the calves are neonates, discovered alive, with no potential mothers nearby. These calves typically require human intervention to survive.
Since 1989 the calves have been rescued (N=67), rehabilitated, and released (N=25) to supplement the small wild manatee population. The rescued calves, and those born in captivity, are typically, not released to their rescue location, mainly for logistical reasons. Therefore, phylogeographic analyses can help to identify related populations and appropriate release sites.
3. Here, mitochondrial DNA analyses identified low haplotype (h=0.08) and nucleotide (π=0.0026) genetic diversity in three closely related haplotypes. All three haplotypes (M01, M03, and a previously unidentified haplotype, M04) were found in the northern portion of the region, while only a single haplotype (M01) was represented in the south. This suggests the presence of two genetic groups with a central mixing zone. Release of rehabilitated calves to unrelated populations may result in genetic swamping of locally adapted alleles or genotypes, limiting the evolutionary potential of the population.
4. The small population size coupled with low genetic diversity indicates that the Northeast Brazil manatee population is susceptible to inbreeding depression and possible local extinction. Further conservation measures incorporating genetic information could be beneficial to the critically endangered Brazilian manatee population.