Genetic Uniqueness Threatens Florida Manatee's Future

GAINESVILLE -- As Florida manatees lumber into warmer waters this month for their winter respite, they're admired for their unique appearance and lovable charm. But it's that very singularity that University of Florida scientists say could be leading the gentle sea cows down the path to extinction.

Genetic testing and DNA comparisons of manatees from eight regions along the Western Atlantic have revealed that the animals living in Florida waters share dangerously low genetic diversity, making them more susceptible to diseases and more sensitive to climate changes, said Brian Bowen, a conservation geneticist with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"What we've learned is the Florida manatee is genetically unique, and that it's isolated from manatees elsewhere in the Caribbean and the Yucatan," Bowen said. "Because of their low genetic diversity, it causes concern but not alarm. It's the same sort of problem that the Florida panther faced 50 years ago."

Researchers collected blood, skin and tissue samples from manatees in Florida, South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The DNA fingerprinting allowed scientists to gain valuable data on their population structures, said Angelica Garcia, a UF graduate researcher working with the Sirenia Project, a federal agency that studies manatees.

Because the manatees living in Florida make up a closely related, separate population, it means their numbers will rise and fall on their own.

"If the population crashes, they are gone," Garcia said. "It is unlikely that it will recover from a natural source of animals coming into Florida to repopulate."

By looking at the genetic traits of the manatee, biologists now believe a small number of Caribbean sea cows colonized Florida waters in the last 10,000 years. With only a few ancestors to start with, today's manatees could be faced with inbreeding problems, making it harder for the species to cope.

Despite the manatee's ability to

Contact: Karen Meisenheimer
University of Florida

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