GPS Tracking Reveals How Manatees Survive During Winter

13 Mar 2019

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is capturing and tagging manatees to answer certain research questions regarding the importance to management and conservation of this endangered species.  The FWC has the permission and authority to capture and tag the manatees through a federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit.

Generally, researchers capture manatees to provide them with a health assessment on site before they tag them and release them for a research project. Through GPS tracking technology, researchers can assess the health of each before they’re included into the research study as well as to ensure the tagging gear fits properly. Since the 1990s, the standard capture methods have been nets deployed from a particular manatee rescue/capture vessel. Researchers can capture manatees either alongshore or in open water.

The GPS satellite-linked tags enables the researchers to track, collect and transmit data on individual behavior, movements and temperature. They received an innovative two-minute animation that displayed a certain manatee named TTB099’s movement in northeast Tampa Bay in the winter during a three-day period.

The manatee, which was tagged in December, was an adult male that weighed 880 lbs. (399 kg) and is 9.2ft (2.8m) long. Researchers received GPS location data at 20-minute intervals with two hours of animation track line (i.e. six successive locations) at any one time. There’s a symbol color that depicts the water temperature the manatee experiences based on tag temperature.

The manatees seek shelter in the winter from the cold bay waters through the use of the warm waters of the discharge canal of the TECO Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach. They’re physiologically unable to survive cold water exposure for extended periods which is why they seek this warmth.

They venture out into Tampa Bay so they can feed on shallow seagrass beds and then go back to the warm-water area. This commute back and forth between habitats is known as “central-place foraging” where the warm water is the central place from which they begin their feeding trips.

The capture boat’s crew is made up of a team of individuals with experience in capturing and handling the manatees.  After the manatees are captured, they can either stay on the capture boat or the crew moves them to land for application of tagging gear and a health assessment.

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