Current Projects

CURRENT PROJECTS

Aerial surveys:    The Manatee Research Program has a long history of conducting low-level aerial surveys to count manatees and other wildlife.  Our current staff has a combined 50+ years of aerial survey experience, having conducted aerial projects over many of Florida’s waterways, as well as parts of the Caribbean and Mexico.  The use of GIS is central in maintaining our sighting databases, analyzing survey data, and producing cartagraphic documentation of manatee distribution, habitat use patterns, trends in counts.

Surveys around Florida Power & Light Company power plants have been done for almost four decades by current MRP staff. Counts have exceeded 2,500 manatees on a single survey day of several plant locations, and for Cape Canaveral Next Generation Energy Center discharge and nearby waters in Brevard County, single day counts have approached 2,000 manatees on several occasions.

Sarasota County surveys have been done for well over 30 years. The surveys have shown year-round habitat use patterns and trends in abundance of manatees. The surveys also highlight locations where human activities and manatee habitat use might be in some conflict, thereby providing information to inform proactive management decisions.

MRP staff have participated in the yearly, statewide manatee aerial surveys organized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute since the 1990s. 

Photo-identification surveys: MRP staff have conducted photo-identification surveys in waters of the south-central west coast of Florida for over 20 years. The surveys provide a gold mine of information on manatee behavior and ecology, habitat use, life history (reproduction, mortality) and other factors necessary to optimally understand and conserve manatees. A primary use of the photo-identification data is to generate regional adult survival estimates, which then translate into insights about population status and trends.

Genetic sampling: MRP staff have genetically sampled manatees in southwestern Florida since 2006. In that time, The MRP developed a unique skin scraping tool that takes a small sample of skin with minimal reactions from manatees. MRP staff also assist the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) with their yearly biopsy sampling events during the colder winter months. Genetic samples are used for many purposes including determining paternity, sex, and as a mark-recapture tool.

Thermal biology: One of the major threats to Florida manatees is cold stress. Cold Stress Syndrome (CSS) affects and kills Florida manatees in winter when water temperatures decrease below ~69°F. CSS symptoms include (but are not limited to) immune suppression, organ failure, lesions of heart, skin and other organs, eventually causing the death of the animal.

The MRP aims at serving manatee conservation, rescue and rehabilitation by:

  • identifying environmental, physiological and morphological parameters with possible influence on Florida manatees’ susceptibility to cold stress
  • working out preventive measures against CSS
  • identifying indicators for early diagnosis of CSS

The understanding of basic principles of manatee thermoregulation has been enhanced owing to investigations in the two trained resident Florida manatees at Mote, Hugh & Buffett. The MRP pursues these goals in cooperation with Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This project is funded by the German Research Foundation.

Captive manatee research: The MRP is in the fortunate position of having access to two husbandry and husbandry trained Florida manatees. The resident manatees at Mote, Hugh & Buffett, are worldwide the only manatees trained for the participation in behavioral experiments. They have participated in numerous studies on manatee sensory systems, such as visual acuity, tactile sensitivity and audition.

In the context of their routinely performed husbandry and medical training the manatees have learned to stay at a target for up to more than 30 minutes. This trained behavior allows veterinarians and scientist to perform health exams and measurements, such as skin temperature or heat flux, without causing stress in the animals. The training of Hugh and Buffett, and of all other mammals and reptiles at Mote Marine Lab, is based on positive reinforcement.

Guadeloupe reintroduction:  MRP staff are currently assisting French ecologists and conservationists with the reintroduction of Antillean manatees in Guadeloupe with the goal of repopulating the area. Antillean manatees were extirpated from the islands of Guadeloupe about 100 years ago due to over-hunting.  As of 2016, two captive-born manatees were transported to Guadeloupe, with the goal of releasing them into the wild. Manatees released in the wild will be monitored to determine if they can learn to forage and survive without human interference. If this project is successful, it will be the first time a sirenian species has been reintroduced in a formerly-occupied area.

Contaminants and other stressors: In conjunction with the Environmental Laboratory for Forensics (ELF), directed by Dr. Dana Wetzel at Mote Marine Laboratory, the MRP is examining levels and long-term sublethal effects of stressors (noise, contaminants, cold stress, disease) on significant biological functions in manatees and other marine mammals and fish globally. In manatees, it appears that cold stress may impact immune function for a long time; thus, even after cold-stressed animals may be thought fit for release following rehabilitation, they remain highly vulnerable to recurrent stressors, including future bouts of cold stress. This means that, when assessing long-term conservation status of manatees affected by stressors, it is not enough to consider only the lethal effects.

Status of warm-water springs: MRP staff have been involved in projects to assess manatee use of springs that could potentially be opened to provide improved protection of manatees during winter cold. Some recent efforts have involved Sulphur Springs, Ulele Spring, Lithia Spring, and of course, Warm Mineral Spring, for which selected restoration could provide a long-term, industry independent source of warm water for hundreds of manatees in southwestern Florida.

Satellite tagging: MRP staff assist with manatee tagging projects around the state to assess habitat use around power plants in southeastern Florida.
 

OTHER  RESEARCH

Biomarkers developed by Mote’s Environmental Laboratory for Forensics and MRP staff also allow the determination of the sex of sturgeon at a very young age; a fact of considerable value to the caviar industry around the world.

Other marine mammal projects currently underway include studies of age determination of bowhead whales and beluga whales in the Arctic, contaminants in Alaska Native subsistence foods and implications for human health, contaminant levels and their effects on sustainability of beluga whales in Cook Inlet and off Point Lay and health status of polar bears in Alaska.

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