Tracking Manatee Movement

A manatee wearing a tracking device. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey, Sirenia Project)

An important part of manatee research involves determining animal movements and critical habitat. This research is conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey's Sirenia Project, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership.

By observing an individual animal over the course of time, researchers can learn many things about migration, travel, important habitat and other behavioral factors, as well as determining life history aspects such as population trends.

Top: A manatee is fitted with a tracking device (Photo © Walker Stanberry). Bottom: A close-up view of a satellite tracking device. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey, Sirenia Project)

Satellite Tracking Devices
One way that researchers monitor manatees is by using satellite tracking devices. The satellite tracking device, or "tag," is a transmitter encased in a floating tube. The tag assembly consists of a belt that fits around the base of the manatee's tail, and about a one-meter (four-foot) long, flexible nylon tether that is attached to the tracking device. The tag assembly does not harm the manatee or affect its freedom of movement, and it is designed with a "weak link" so it will break loose if it becomes entangled in vegetation or debris. Radio signals sent from the transmitter are received by polar orbiting satellites and analyzed to yield accurate location data on the manatee. Sensors built into the unit give additional data on water temperature and the manatee's activity. Researchers can access this information daily by computer.

Researchers have been able to record some interesting and informative manatee movements as a result of the tagging program. One manatee made a 321-kilometer (200-mile) trip in Florida from Brevard County to Port Everglades in less than 10 days. Another manatee moved between Fernadina Beach and Brevard County seven times, making this 241-kilometer (150-mile) trip in less than four days on at least one occasion. She swam nearly 72 kilometers (45 miles) per day and traveled into the Atlantic Ocean and along the beach for several portions of the journey. Another manatee named Chessie traveled all the way from Florida to Rhode Island and back! These long-distance movements had not previously been documented for individual manatees.

If you see a tagged manatee, please do not touch the transmitter tags. People with good intentions have pulled tags off manatees, thinking the manatee was entangled in crab trap lines and buoys.

A composite scar sketch, used by researchers to identify "BS 19" or Merlin, a manatee who winters at Blue Spring State Park, near Orange City, FL. (Courtesy USGS, Sirenia Project)

Manatee Individual
Photo-Identification System

Most adult manatees inhabiting Florida waters are scarred from collisions with boats. Researchers can use these scars to identify individual animals.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Sirenia Project, in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, maintains a Photo CD-based computerized database of distinctively scarred manatees statewide. This database is called the Manatee Individual Photo-Identification System or MIPS.

Manatees are often photographed for inclusion in the MIPS when they are gathered at warm water refuges in the winter and at various areas they frequent in the summer. Captive manatees reintroduced to the wild and wild manatees that are radiotagged and released are also photographically documented.

Report a Manatee Sighting
To report a manatee sighting, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (1-888-404-3922). Please be prepared to give information on the date, time, location, and activity of the manatee, as well as a description of the color-coded tag. Sightings from the public often help biologists locate missing animals with malfunctioning units or detached tags. Information gathered from this project helps identify areas of importance to manatees and helps establish appropriate protection for vulnerable habitat.

Get More Info!
Learn more about manatee research and tracking by visiting the following web sites:

Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

U.S. Geological Survey,
Southeast Ecological Science Center, Sirenia Project

Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership

Wildtracks Manatee Release Blog and Tracking Maps (Belize)