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Experts race to find why manatees are dying off

April 3, 1996
Web posted at: 1:00 a.m. EST

From Correspondent John Zarrella

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNN) -- What is killing Florida's manatees? Scientists from around the nation are scrambling to find out why more than 100 of these endangered mammals have been found dead along the state's southwest coast.

floating manatee carcass

"These animals are dying, what we call, acutely. They're dying very rapidly and they are in otherwise good condition," says pathologist Dr. Scott Wright.


Pathologists and biologists are working frantically, studying and analyzing tissue and blood samples in hopes of isolating the cause of the massive die-off of the gentle creatures.

"We're still collecting tissues. We're still sending tissues out for analysis to experts who have volunteered their resources from around the nation and we have some international interest also," says Alan Huff with the Florida Marine Institute. (672K QuickTime movie)

More than 100 manatees mysteriously died in the waters off southwest Florida in the past month alone. That's nearly half of the total number of manatees that died during all of 1995.

Dead manatee retrieval

"It points out how precarious their position is as a species, because we don't know the cause of mortality in this case," says biologist Tom Pitchford.

The experts are pretty sure that the animals are succumbing to pneumonia, but the question is, what's causing the pneumonia?

"What is happening in the environment right now that renders the immune system of these animals so low?" asks Lou Hinds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wright says manatees dying of pneumonia is nothing new.

"It's happened for years. The difference is, not so many die quickly in the same location," Wright says.

But that's a potential saving grace. The watery graveyard appears to be a regional problem, confined to manatees in southwest Florida.

manatee carcass

"This is a major impact to this genetic pool right here. This group, this pod of animals in this area that are probably kin to one another somehow," Hinds says.

With fewer than 2,000 manatees believed living, scientists bemoan the loss of even a single one. In this case, their frustration is magnified. Laws can be enacted to slow the creature's demise by humans, but this epidemic, tragically, may have to run its course.

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