CNN Environment News


Disease killing off
Florida's manatees

March 22, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Bob Hite

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Until recently, man was the manatee's biggest enemy. Now, that threat is under control. But nature's gentle giant faces a new and deadly challenge: a disease that is gradually snuffing out the animals.

manatee with diver

One of Florida's most endangered species, the manatee is some 13 feet in length and weighs up to 3,500 pounds. (762K QuickTime movie) It knows no natural enemy save for man -- and propellers.

Till now, humans speeding through Florida's waters proved the greatest danger to the slow moving mammals. In fact, many manatees bear the scars of their encounters with man and machine.

Florida responded to the growing crisis with slow speed zones and manatee sanctuaries where boats are prohibited.

Fortunately for the manatees, these measures worked.

diseased manatee

Indeed, Florida saw its manatee population surging from about 1,800 in the 1980s to more than 2,600 in an aerial survey conducted last year.

But now, there is a new threat to the manatee. One from which there is no sanctuary, yet.

A disease, that so far has struck only in the southwest corner of the state, is killing the creatures at an unprecedented rate.

Last year Florida lost 201 manatees. This year, 140 have died already.

At the marine research institute pathology lab in St. Petersburg, scientists are afraid that 1996 may be the worst year in history for manatee mortality.

"It's scary," says Scott Wright of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "Until we have a better idea of precisely what's happening, it's going to be difficult to assess what effect this is going to have."

biologists in the lab

Biologists have identified the cause of death as some type of pneumonia, but they don't know what's causing it.

Florida's unusually cold winter could be a contributing factor; cold lowers the warm-blooded mammal's immunity.

In the past few days the death rate seems to be decreasing. But at the lab in St. Petersburg, the intensity of the scientific research continues undiminished.

"It's a premiere animal down here and they (people) need to know that we're doing everything we can to figure this out," says Wright.

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