Subject: Info: Mystery disease killing endang (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Mon, 1 Apr 1996 18:15:52 -0500 (EST)

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Date: Mon, 1 Apr 96 02:35:00 UTC 0000
Subject: Mystery disease killing endang

Mystery disease killing endangered Florida manatees

    By Jim Loney
     MIAMI, March 31 (Reuter) - A mystery killer is stalking the
endangered manatee, confounding marine mammal experts trying to
solve the riddle of unprecedented deaths among the frail
population of Florida's gentle, whiskered water giants.
     During the past month, 86 manatees have turned up dead in
southwest Florida. Experts say they died from pneumonia, but
what is causing the pneumonia has eluded researchers.
     The U.S. government has assembled a team of experts to help,
and a virologist from the Netherlands also has joined the
effort. They are testing water and soil samples and examining
corpses and tissue to find the killer.
     "The manatee is one of Florida's greatest treasures and we
are working hard to find out what's killing them," said
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia
     The Florida manatee is a leathery aquatic mammal that
averages 10 feet (three metres) in length and 1,000 lbs (450 kg)
and dates back at least 45 million years. It has hovered on the
edge of extinction for years, yet it has no natural enemy save
     The gentle mammals, which are also found in West Africa and
the Amazon, are believed to have given rise to the myth of
mermaids by sailors who saw them from a distance.
     Each year dozens of manatees are killed by speeding boats
while others die from disease or cold weather. The last survey
of Florida's manatee population indicated about 2,600 remain.
     Many of the sea cows necropsied since the deaths began were
relatively young and healthy apart from discoloured,
fluid-filled lungs, said Alan Huff, programme administrator at
the Florida Marine Research Institute.
     "They have good muscle tone, full guts, they've been
eating. But they're dead," Huff said.
     A spate of manatee deaths is not unprecedented, but there
has never been one this large. In the winter of 1976-77, and
again in January 1990, several dozen manatees were killed by
cold spells in the usually warm coastal waters of Florida.
     In 1982, 39 manatees died as a result of a natural
phenomenon known as red tide, a microorganism that produced a
toxic chemical which the manatees ingested.
     The experts consider cold and red tide possible contributors
to the latest deaths.
     "We haven't ruled anything out," Huff said. "Pneumonia
can be caused by a bacterial infection, a viral infection, with
contributions from the environment, cold water, behaviour of the
     "We're not ruling out red tide as a contributing factor,
but in past red tide deaths, they (the manatees) behaved
abnormally. We haven't seen any of that this time," he said.
     Investigators say whatever is killing the manatees is doing
so quickly. The dead mammals show no signs of wasting away that
would denote a lingering illness and officials have had few
calls about living manatees appearing ill.
     The sea cow has long been at the heart of a struggle in
Florida between its protectors and boating interests, with whom
the manatee shares the state's myriad narrow, increasingly
crowded channels, canals and lagoons.
     Human factors are cited in 30 percent of manatee deaths. The
sluggish giants, which often drift just beneath the water's
surface, are rammed by speed boats, gored by spinning
propellers, crushed in channel floodgates and scarred by fishing