Manatee Research Program

John Reynolds, III, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Program Manager
In the wild, manatees’ persistence is hampered by slow reproductive rates, deaths from human-related causes like boat strikes and fishing gear entanglement, and even the destruction of habitat — particularly the future access to warm water resources.

For decades, Mote’s Manatee Research Program has been the leading non-governmental center doing quality sirenian research in the U.S., working to answer questions about manatee biology, health and behavior to better understand the species and to inform management decisions and educate the public. Mote also works abroad to develop research and conservation programs in partnership with groups in other countries to help them develop and implement their own sirenian (manatee and dugong) programs.

Mote Manatee Program research studies include photo identification, aerial surveys, genetic sampling and working with our Environmental Laboratory of Forensics to study chemical contaminant levels and the effects of those and other stressors on manatees. It is important to note that all of these efforts are necessary for effective manatee conservation. 

Photo IdentificationAerial Surveys
Genetic Sampling Contaminant and Fatty Acid Analysis
Select Publications Internships Appreciation

Photo Identification
At the heart of photo-identification, or photo ID, is a unique set of markings found on the skin of many manatees. Researchers can use the marks, often healed scars from wounds, to tell individuals apart — much like fingerprints differentiate humans.

Photos are entered into the statewide Manatee Individual Photo-Identification System, MIPS, which is maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Mote. As of late summer 2011, it included 2,523 manatees (of a statewide population of up to 5,000 individuals).

The data are subjected to intense and rigorous analysis; Among the results are survival estimates that tell researchers whether a population in a given area is increasing or decreasing. 

Aerial Surveys
Aerial surveys occur during most months of the year and are done from a Cessna 172 flown by a specially trained and highly skilled pilot using fuel donated by Dolphin Aviation. Aerial survey data provide a snapshot in time and counts vary depending on location, time of year and the water temperatures.

Sarasota County waters can turn up about 100 manatees per survey in non-winter months. In Brevard County, considered a major manatee habitat, staff has spotted more than 1,000 manatees in a single day.

Genetic Sampling
Genetic sampling is a relatively new tool being used by manatee researchers. Among other things, it helps them understand the level of genetic diversity within manatee populations. Such diversity is important to a population’s ability to adapt and survive in changing conditions.

Navigating close to the animals in the wild, Mote researchers give them a slight rub with a small aluminum tube attached to the end of a pole. The tube has holes that scrape off and collect a tiny bit of the manatees’ thick skin and provide a reliable DNA sample, that contributes to a multi-agency genetic ID database for manatees.

Mating Herd Sampling
Groups as large as 20 or more male manatees following a single female are known as manatee mating herds; on a beach or in a canal, they’re not hard to spot as the males jockey for prime position next to the female.  But what’s really going on in these herds? How do the males know the female is ready to mate? Do the females choose individual partners? Which males are the most successful sires?

By responding to reports of mating herds and gathering DNA samples, and combining this information with photo ID research, scientists hope one day to be able to solve some of these mysteries.

So far, the scientists have documented:
  • 53 mating herd sightings during non-winter months in Sarasota waters between 2004 and 2010;
  • 243 photographically distinctive, presumed males in those mating herds;
  • That most males were found in a mating herd only once, though 21 males were seen five or more times and one individual was sighted 17 times. 

Contaminant and Fatty Acid Analysis
Some things that impact manatee populations are less obvious than others. Working with staff in Mote’s Environmental Laboratory of Forensics, Program staff look at the long-term health of manatees from stressors such as industrial chemicals or pesticides and even exposure to the toxins found in Florida’s naturally occurring red tide.

Such exposures could reduce manatees’ overall immune system function or a female’s ability to reproduce. “It’s not just the quantity of animals that you have,” Reynolds says. “But also the quality of their health and reproductive status that determines whether a species will survive or thrive.”

About Us

Mote Marine Laboratory has been a leader in marine research since it was founded in 1955. Today, we incorporate public outreach as a key part of our mission. Mote is an independent nonprofit organization and has seven centers for marine research, the public Mote Aquarium and an Education Division specializing in public programs for all ages.

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