Teaching About Manatees in Belize
(r-l) Biologist Nicole Auil Gomez shows Anmarie Alvarez Aleman, a biologist from Cuba, how to PIT tag a manatee. (Photo by Artie Wong, Save the Manatee Club)

By Artie Wong,
Staff Biologist,
Save the Manatee Club

Anmarie Alvarez Aleman, a biologist with the Institute for Marine Investigations in Havana, Cuba, crouches over an Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and intently watches as fellow biologist Nicole Auil Gomez from Wildlife Trust demonstrates the placement of the Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT tag, as it is often called. The tag is a number-coded microchip that allows scientists to easily identify the manatee in the future. The technique is important for Anmarie to learn, as she is studying manatees in her native Cuba. Relatively little is known about the manatee’s population status there.

Teaching other scientists is a major objective of the Belize manatee research project led by Dr. James “Buddy” Powell of the nonprofit group Sea to Shore Alliance and Bob Bonde of the U.S. Geological Survey, Sirenia Project. I participated in the project in 2008 and am back to help out this year as well. While we are in Belize, we radio tag manatees and gather health-related data. Buddy and Bob's pioneering efforts have lead to a great deal of knowledge about the manatee population in Belize.

Like Florida manatees, the Antillean manatees found in Belize are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. Antillean manatees are found in the coastal and inland waterways of eastern Mexico, Central America, the Greater Antilles, and along the northern and eastern coasts of South America. Both Florida manatees and Antillean manatees can be found in salt, fresh or brackish waters and feed on marine, estuarine, and freshwater vegetation.

I look up to find Trenton Welch, a local Belizean with Wildlife Trust, staring over my shoulder at a wireless ECG program on my laptop. The ECG, or electrocardiogram, is used to monitor the manatee's heart. I explain what little I know about the program, and we have a good laugh. Education is often practical in nature for many of the young people in Belize. Ensuring that there is food and shelter for their families often takes precedence over the ambitious academic goals that are often impressed upon young people in the United States. However, Trenton realizes that his life is very much entwined with the conservation programs in his home town of Gales Point, Belize. He works not only to protect manatees, but grouper fish as well.

The manatee research conducted in Belize is part of a much larger picture to define what is needed for species and habitat protection. The aquaculture facilities have depleted local seagrass beds as they discharge concentrated waste into the surrounding waters. Development along the coast has increased significantly since last year’s visit. It is essentially a race to identify environmentally significant areas before they are encroached upon by damaging human activity.

(l-r) SMC Staff Biologist Artie Wong shows Wildlife Trust's Trenton Samuels the wireless ECG program used to monitor the manatee's heart while the manatee is being assessed. (Photo by Jamal Galves, Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute)

Orphaned Calf Rescued in Belize
Paul Walker and Twiggy the manatee
Paul Walker and Twiggy in the rehabilitation pool at the Wildtracks facilty in Sarteneja, Belize. (Photo courtesy Wildtracks.)

By Artie Wong
Staff Biologist, Save the Manatee Club

On June 25, 2009, an orphaned female calf named Twiggy was rescued near the shoreline of Heusner Caye in Belize. The calf was spotted by a boat captain with Sea Sport. Jamal Galves with the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) and the Sea to Shore Alliance, and Paul and Zoe Walker of Wildtracks, a nonprofit manatee rehabilitation center, were contacted to rescue Twiggy. Twiggy was captured with a small hand net and was immediately given Pedialyte, which is a special fluid to treat her for dehydration. She was then transported to the Belize Manatee Rehabiltation Center, operated by Wildtracks, which is located in Sarteneja.

Jamal Galves holds Twiggy after she is rescued.
Jamal Galves holds Twiggy after she is rescued near Heusner Island in Belize. She weighed just 56 pounds at the time. (Photo courtesy Sea Sport.)
Wildtracks is the only facility for manatees in all of Belize and relies on its volunteer directors, Paul and Zoe Walker, and its team of Wildtracks volunteers. A manatee calf will nurse at least every two hours, so Paul and Zoe have been working around the clock to feed her. With support from manufacturers PetAg and Jorgensen Laboratories, Save the Manatee Club recently sent a supply of milk formula and a feeding tube for Twiggy. “Save the Manatee Club has been very good to us in the past, supporting our rehabilitation efforts,” said Nicole Auil Gomez, Belize Program Manager for Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit organization working with Wildtracks. “The supplies for Twiggy are greatly appreciated.”

Twiggy’s life will be difficult growing up without her mother. Should Twiggy survive and be released, she will be challenged to learn about her new environment. Normally, Twiggy would spend the next two years with her mother, learning where to find the best seagrasses to eat, freshwater to drink, travel routes, and interactions with other manatees. However, Paul Walker tells us that Twiggy has already been introduced to the lagoon pool, where she has spent short, supervised periods exploring the mangroves and seagrass. These efforts will allow Twiggy to acclimate to a natural environment prior to her release back into the wild, which is Belize's goal for any manatee rehabilitation.

Jamal and Paul assess Twiggy's health after she is rescued.
(l-r) Jamal Galves and Paul Walker take a blood sample from Twiggy in order to assess her health after the rescue. (Photo courtesy of Wildtracks.)

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