January’s cold spell takes toll on manatee population in Florida

By Calvin Palmer

The recent cold spell in Florida was not only bad news for the state’s fruit growers but also took a tragic toll on the manatee population.

Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented 107 dead manatees in state waters from January 1 to January 23 and 77 of those deaths were due to cold stress.

Newborn manatees were particularly vulnerable, with 10 carcasses of perinatal manatees, less than 5 feet long, among the 77.

“More manatees died due to cold in January than all cold-related deaths last year,” commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson said. “Last year’s total of 56 was a record for deaths attributed to the cold.”

Exposure to cold water over a period of time can cause a condition called manatee cold-stress syndrome, which can result in death. An unusual number of dead manatees were first noticed on January 7.

Most manatee carcasses are taken to the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg for necropsies. Those that cannot be transported are examined in the field, Segelson said.

“Manatees begin feeling the cold when the water temperature is 68 degrees,” she said. “Prolonged exposure brings on cold stress. It’s like hypothermia in people.”

Last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced a statewide count of more than 5,000 seacows in Florida.

The high count was also a consequence of the cold, which forced more of the manatees to stay in the canals fed by warm water from power stations refuges or spring fed rivers, where scientists could more easily count them.

Anyone who spots a dead or distressed manatee should call the wildlife alert hot line at 1-888-404-3922.

[Based on reports by The Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.]

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