CNN Environment News

Scientists search for cause
of mysterious manatee deaths


March 29, 1996
Web posted at: 12:15 a.m. EST

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNN) -- More than a dozen pathologists and research scientists are engaged in trying to solve a deadly puzzle: the mystery death of manatees in southwest Florida.

In the last few weeks, at least 86 of the endangered sea cows have died of pneumonia caused by unknown reasons.

"We're not ruling anything out at this point," said Scott Wright, a pathologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in Tampa.

Scientists have been collecting dead carcasses along a 35 mile stretch of Florida's coast line south of Tampa for more than three weeks.

dead manatees

For a time, they were finding as many as a dozen dead manatees a day. The number of reported deaths has declined this week.

Among the possible causes of the pneumonia are a mystery virus or bacteria. Pathologists have been performing necropsies and sending tissue samples to scientists -- some as far away as the Netherlands -- to determine what is killing the mammals.

At this point, Dr. Wright said, he does not think Florida's overall manatee population -- estimated earlier this year to be about 2,200 -- is at risk because the deaths appear to be limited to southwest Florida.

Past deaths have been linked to a toxic algae called "red tide." But researchers said it is too early to say what is to blame in this case.

Until recently, humans speeding through Florida's waters proved the greatest danger to nature's gentle giant. In fact, many manatees bear the scars of their encounters with man and machine.

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