How a little bit of cold can kill a big manatee, and what it might mean for the species

While Florida may be warm enough even in the coldest winter months to attract sun-seeking tourists, when the thermometer does dip, it can prove deadly for endangered Florida manatees. Just why these plus-size animals would succumb in water cooled to just 68 degrees Fahrenheit has remained a mystery. Now, researchers from HARBOR BRANCH Oceanographic and other institutions have discovered for the first time the causes of this "cold stress syndrome" in Florida manatees.

The work, described in the current edition of the journal Aquatic Mammals, could significantly improve treatment for cold-stressed manatees. It could also help decide an ongoing controversial debate regarding the manatee's state endangered species status and aid in the development of plans to minimize the effects of power plant shutdowns on the manatees who have grown to depend on the warm water they release.

During cold spells, sick, sometimes emaciated manatees at times wash up along the coast of Florida afflicted with a puzzling combination of skin sores and infections that clinicians historically treated as separate ailments. In the new paper, lead author Dr. Gregory Bossart, Director of the Division of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at HARBOR BRANCH, and colleagues, explain how long-term exposure to cold water can be responsible for this multi-faceted condition.

The team found that the cold stress syndrome stems from a cascade of physiological events and diseases initiated by cold water and manatees' limited ability to adapt to low temperature extremes. The study suggests that the animal's metabolism slows, leading to digestion problems, decreased appetite, and associated weight loss. These events, along with the possible release of certain hormones, weaken manatees' immune systems, making them vulnerable to environmental toxins as well as a variety of diseases, including pneumonia, intestinal infections, and perhaps even a manatee virus similar to one that c

Contact: Mark Schrope
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution

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