Manatee Research

Scientific research is important to help learn what manatees need to survive, how they behave, and what the threats are to their continued existence. With data, scientists can provide the information and documentation that can lead to their protection. This research is conducted by agencies and organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project (USGS), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, Mote Marine Laboratory (MML), the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, and Save the Manatee Club (SMC).

Gator the manatee's scar pattern
Gator the manatee has a very identifiable scar pattern, making him easy to spot. Above, he examines a turtle in the Blue Spring run.

Manatee Individual Photo-Identification System

Most manatee scar patterns are caused by collisions with watercraft, although some of them are due to healed fungal lesions or entanglements. Researchers can use these scars to identify individual animals.

The MIPS Partnership, consisting of FWC, MML, and USGS, works collaboratively to photograph Florida manatees throughout their range, process images, identify manatees, and manage an integrated sightings database, known as the Manatee Individual Photo-identification System (MIPS). Additional contributors also provide valuable data and photographs. The records in MIPS provide insights into manatee movements, site fidelity (i.e., the tendency to return to the same location year after year), adult survival and reproductive rates, and reproductive parameters such as calving intervals (time between births) and length of calf dependency.

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. Rehabilitated manatees reintroduced to the wild and wild manatees that are tagged and released are also photographically documented.

Manatee researchers at Blue Spring State Park.
Wayne Hartley, Manatee Specialist, and Cora Berchem, Director of Multimedia & Manatee Research Associate, take “manatee roll call” at Blue Spring State Park.

Research at Blue Spring State Park

Since 1980, Wayne Hartley has served as a principal investigator for manatee research conducted at Blue Spring State Park under the auspices of the FWS and the USGS (all activities conducted under permit #MA791721-5). Wayne is Save the Manatee Club’s Manatee Specialist and is assisted by Cora Berchem, SMC’s Director of Multimedia and Manatee Research Associate. Manatee research conducted at Blue Spring has resulted in a very extensive body of knowledge on the manatee’s life history as well as how they use warm-water habitat. It is one of the longest running databases in existence on manatees. Wayne and Cora also monitor the manatees that visit the park for cold stress, malnourishment, boat strikes, or other injuries and illnesses and provide assistance to the FWC with manatee rescue and release.

The park is located in Orange City, Florida. Manatees seek out Blue Spring in the winter because the constant 72-degree spring water is essential to their winter survival. Between November and March, Wayne and/or Cora go out each morning to conduct “roll call” at Blue Spring, a process in which they count the manatees that are in the spring run, identify individuals, and mark down research notes such as who has a calf and who got a new boat strike.

Wayne Hartley's Manatee Research Notes
Wayne Hartley’s manatee research scar charts and notes.

Wayne and Cora also update manatee research scar charts, take photographs, and review footage from the Manatee Webcams at the park. Each manatee gets its own identification number that is based on location. “Lily,” for example, is Blue Spring Number 4 (BS04), the oldest living female manatee at Blue Spring State Park. She was first sighted at the park in 1974, and Wayne has kept track of her since 1981. Each year, the manatees are photographed and their scar charts are re-drawn as they may have gotten new scars or old scars have healed and changed.

At the end of manatee season, Wayne and Cora submit their scar sketches, pictures, and genealogies for inclusion in the statewide MIPS database.

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Tag along on a visit to Gainesville, Florida as Wayne meets with Cathy Beck of the USGS to discuss the MIPS and the Blue Spring manatees included in the database.


Satellite Tracking Devices

Another way researchers monitor manatees is by using satellite tracking devices. The satellite tracking device, or “tag,” is a transmitter encased in a cannister. The tag assembly consists of a belt that fits around the base of the manatee’s tail, and about a four-foot (one-meter) 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. 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.

A manatee wearing a tracking device.
A manatee wearing a tracking device.

Orphaned or young manatees who have been rescued are often tagged when they are released so their movements can be monitored to help ensure a successful reintroduction back into the wild. Each manatee that is rescued or captured for a health assessment is also outfitted with a PIT tag, similar to a microchip for your pet. This allows researchers to scan the manatee should it be rescued again or recovered and, if PIT tagged, they can quickly identify the individual. Tracking devices provide important information about age, habitat use, and distribution. Researchers have been able to record some interesting and informative manatee movements. For example, research of tagged manatees in Tampa Bay, Florida, showed that manatees would go out at night and forage for food when there was less boat traffic. It has shown that some manatees travel the length of Florida’s east coast and use different habitat and various warm water winter refuges over time. Tracking research also documents manatee movement outside of Florida. For example, some manatees who winter in Crystal River, Florida, have been known to travel in the summer to Alabama. One manatee captured in the spring in Georgia made it back to Florida for the winter. Another manatee released in Florida traveled to the Bahamas (information courtesy Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute). Yet another manatee named Chessie even traveled all the way from Florida to Rhode Island and back.

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. Please report the tagged manatee to the FWC. Call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or use VHF Channel 16 on your marine radio. You can also download the free FWC Reporter app on your smartphone or tablet.

Watch our video to learn more about the technology that is used to track manatees.


Report a Manatee Sighting

If you live along a river, estuary, canal or coastal area in Florida, you can help provide valuable information to researchers who are tracking manatees. When you spot a manatee, please fill out our simple electronic form. Your sighting information is shared with our partners for possible inclusion in the statewide Manatee Individual Photoidentification database (MIPS) and may be used to help identify manatees and track their movement. We appreciate your help with this important information!


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