Info: Dying Manatees (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Mon, 18 Mar 1996 14:35:57

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Date: Sun, 17 Mar 96 04:42:00 UTC 0000
Subject: Dying Manatees
Dying Manatees
 Associated Press Writer
   SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. (AP) -- Marine scientist Dr. Scott Wright
sliced into the 10-foot carcass of a barnacle-covered manatee
Thursday, racing to solve an urgent mystery.
   Over the past nine days, 30 manatees have been found dead in the
waters of southwest Florida, most of them healthy adults whose
presence is considered vital for saving the endangered species.
Sixteen dead manatees have been found just since Tuesday, most dead
less than 24 hours.
   "This animal has abundant fat," Wright said as he performed
the necropsy on the 1,000-pound beast in an outdoor shed
transformed into an emergency laboratory. "It's in good condition.
It's just dead."
   Wielding a large filet knife, Wright has been slicing through
manatee carcasses all week, but so far has been unable to figure
out exactly why the friendly animals are dying.
   He's found out they've all had pneumonia, but doesn't know
what's causing it. And he says pneumonia wouldn't normally kill a
healthy manatee.
   In all, 61 manatees have been found dead since January in
southwest Florida, the latest threat to the whiskered, walruslike
sea cow.
   "This is happening very rapidly," Wright said. "The tissue
samples we've collected are telling a story that we've never seen
or heard before."
   Manatees have inhabited Florida's waters for the past 45 million
years, but due in part to increasing motorboat traffic, their
numbers have dwindled to about 2,600. Biologists fear a rapid
decrease in the death toll.
   "We've been hesitant to say it, but what we're seeing is
indicative of a die-off situation. How long it will last, we don't
know," Wright said as he poked through the adult male's intestines
for evidence of pneumonia.
   "There it is," he said, pointing to a long, red and purple
stripe within the manatee's lungs. The area would have been pink
without the presence of pneumonia.
   Another carcass was hoisted by crane onto a trailer nearby, and
three more were arranged on ice outside the makeshift laboratory.
An ice truck pulled up with two other carcasses before Wright
finished his necropsy on the first.
   "We're working around the clock to determine the exact cause of
death," said Virginia Wetherell, secretary of the state Department
of Environmental Protection.
   The biologists have been able to rule out some causes of death.
   They don't think it's the recent cold weather because most of
the deaths have been in large, healthy adults that were in warmer
waters and should have been able to withstand the cold.
   Red tide, a toxic micro-organism that can kill fish and
accumulates in shellfish, has been present in the water. But no
sick or disoriented manatees have been found, as would be expected
if they were being harmed by red tide.
   Testing has showed no changes in water quality in the region,
and there have been no indications of toxic spills or other
pollution problems.
   The only common factor among the manatees studied so far has
been a form of bacterial pneumonia. The pneumonia could be the
result of a new bacterium, a virus or a combination of factors such
as the water chill combined with its salinity, Wright said.
   He worked in a makeshift laboratory -- essentially a large,
screened porch with huge fans in the middle of the J.N. "Ding"
Darling Wildlife Preserve on Sanibel Island just south of Fort
   Last February, state environmental officials counted 2,639
manatees statewide -- the highest manatee population count in recent
years. Of those, 809 were in the area where the manatees are now
   Wright expects the recent deaths will remain limited to
southwest Florida and won't spread to manatee populations off other
parts of the state.
   "But we have to be concerned if we want to have any hope of
saving the population," he said.