Manatee project provides species health baselines, best practices for capture techniques

Manatee Day

Since 2008, IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research staff has monitored three wayward manatees in the Cape Cod region; two remained in the area as water temperatures dropped and were rescued for transport to warmer southern waters. In recognizing that we may be visited by these docile marine mammals more frequently in the future, we recently took advantage of an invitation to participate in the annual U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Sirenia Project, a multi-agency effort that assesses the health of manatees and provides baseline information on their health, reproductive status and nutritional condition.

The assessments were held over two days in Crystal River, Florida (the largest natural winter refuge for manatees in the world) last month.

On the first day of assessments, I met the team at 7AM sharp, and found myself quickly surrounded with 100 eager participants there to assist with and gain knowledge of the capture techniques and health assessments involved with these endangered manatees. Participants included biologists and veterinarians representing federal, state and local governmental agencies and universities, as well as staff from zoos and aquariums nationwide.

Following the morning briefing, I walked to the capture beach to help clear the sand of rocks and shells to mitigate any injuries to the animals when hauling them ashore. The capture process soon commenced. Spotters in boats watched for target animals as they moved out of the springs. When the animals were spotted, one end of a seine net was set on land, while the remainder was strewn from a boat, which made a slow arch away from and then back toward shore further down the beach, encircling the animal for participants to pull ashore.

Once in the net, animals were carefully cared for, making sure that their heads could break the water’s surface for clear breaths. Witnessing the impressive strength of these half-ton animals on shore reaffirmed my great appreciation and respect for these creatures, as they can roll onto their backs and touch their tails to their snouts in a sudden, powerful motion.

After capture, animals were relocated from the net to large stretchers, and were then transported to a nearby beach for a thorough health assessment. Having a second designated assessment beach allowed for maximum efficiency of the process, as the team on the capture beach could begin netting the next manatee while the veterinary team assessed the first.

Health assessments allow for the collection of data on vital signs, body condition, measurements, and DNA, blood, urine, and feces for laboratory analysis. They also provide an opportunity to collect visual data on manatees, using unique markings, such 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. The sample and data archive created through this project will be used in the future to gauge the health and status of the population.

A total of eight animals were captured and assessed by the team (including a cow/calf pair and a pregnant female) over the two-day period, and surprisingly, all eight were new manatees that got added to the database. They were released within an hour.

In addition to these eight new manatees, we would like to also provide another positive update on “Washburn” the manatee, rescued by IFAW staff on September 22, 2016 on Washburn Island off of East Falmouth, MA, and that was found to be pregnant during short-term rehabilitation at Mystic Aquarium in CT. On November 1, 2016, Washburn was released back into the wild in Volusia County, FL, where she was affixed with a tracking device to monitor her post-release movements.

We are happy to report that her tag transmitted for one month prior to falling off, and she seemed to be doing well in the Bahamas when last observed by researchers there. She is the first recorded manatee to be satellite tracked during the journey from Florida to the Bahamas, and we hope that she will be observed in the near future with a healthy calf.

Participating in opportunities such as the USGS Sirenia Project will enable our team to develop and maintain manatee capture, handling and health assessment skills so that we are able to provide safe rescue and excellent animal care should the need arise as we continue to observe these beautiful creatures in our area in the future.

While it may seem counterintuitive to take a wild animal out of its habitat, even if only for a brief time, wild animal health assessments are not only important for species conservation but for individual animal care.

Happy Manatee Appreciation Day!

--JH

-All activities were conducted under the authorization of USFWS and USGS.

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