Tracking Manatee Movement
Date: January 20, 2020
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, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, of which Save the Manatee Club is a Charter Member/partner.
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.
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 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.
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. Tracking devices also show how manatees use habitat, and 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. Data on Annie and Rocket, two orphaned manatees who spent time together in rehabilitation, revealed that they stayed together after they were released until they were almost four years old — an unusual behavior. 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.
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 database with images and data 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 tagged and released are also photographically documented.
Report a Manatee Sighting
To report a manatee sighting, please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or by sending an email or text message to Tip@MyFWC.com. 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. Photos of the manatee and tag are also welcome. 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.