A Look Into the World of Manatee Research
Learn about their work and stories of the individual manatees they track
By Cora Berchem
Manatee Research & Multimedia Specialist, Save the Manatee Club
Date: November 28, 2018
When Wayne Hartley began his research at Blue Spring State Park during the winter of 1980-81, he started out with 36 manatees. Before Blue Spring was officially protected as a state park in the 1970s, manatees were driven away from the spring by large numbers of people and boats within the spring run. It is now 2018, and Wayne keeps track of over 500 manatees who overwinter in protected waters within Blue Spring. He can track some of the manatees back for many generations. Manatees seek out Blue Spring in large numbers in the winter because the constant 72-degree spring water is essential to their winter survival. They will sometimes even forgo feeding on the coldest days to stay warm in the spring and conserve energy but will venture out into the St Johns River to feed on warmer winter days.
Wayne’s work is part of manatee research that is conducted statewide in Florida and provides scientific data on animal movements and critical habitat that can help manatee conservation efforts. Each year he submits his scar sketches, pictures, and genealogies to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Sirenia Project (USGS) in Gainesville, Florida. Wildlife Biologist Cathy Beck has been working for USGS for 40 years and has been managing the Manatee Individual Photoidentification Database (MIPS) since 1992. Much of the success of the MIPS database can be credited to Cathy’s dedication to excellence and unwavering commitment over the last four decades. The state-wide database now includes over 4,600 manatees with the earliest entry dating back to 1967. “Zack – Crystal River 025 (CR025) is the oldest male manatee in the database, and Sasha – Crystal River 026 (CR026) is the oldest female,” says Cathy. “They were first documented in Crystal River in 1967 and 1968 respectively and still have sightings up to this day.”
Each manatee gets its own identification number that is based on location. “Lily” for example is Blue Spring number 4 (BS004), 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. “She was there when I started,” says Wayne. “She was considered a young matron back then and hasn’t missed a winter season since.”
Manatees are recognized by the scar patterns they have acquired during their lifetimes. Most manatee scar patterns are caused by collisions with watercraft, although some of them are due to healed fungal lesions or entanglements. Interestingly, many of the manatees Wayne sees at Blue Spring have a long sighting history on Florida’s East Coast, which Cathy is able to match in the database. For example, Manatee “Millie” (BS133) had a 12-year sighting history up and down Florida’s East Coast before she ever came to Blue Spring. The last time Wayne saw her at Blue Spring was in 2014, but she was photographed by researchers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the powerplant in Port Everglades last winter and in the Silver River this past summer. Another example is manatee “Camo,” who first came to Blue Spring in 2012 but before then had a long sighting history in Miami. Unfortunately, Camo was killed from a collision with watercraft near Jacksonville in the summer of 2017.
Keeping track of manatees is no easy task as each manatee needs to be re-drawn and re-photographed each year as they may have gotten new scars or old scars have healed and changed. The database documents behavior, reproduction rate, and annual survival. Between November and March, Wayne goes out each morning to conduct “roll call” at Blue Spring, a process in which he counts the manatees that are in the spring run, identifies individuals, marks down who has a calf, and who got a new boat strike. “Wayne has contributed thousands of photos and sightings to the MIPS database,” says Cathy. “Due to his efforts, the manatee population at Blue Spring is the best documented one in the state.”