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Manatee deaths confuse scientists

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Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013 1:01 am

A rash of mysterious manatee deaths in Brevard County and surrounding areas have baffled scientists.

More than 50 manatees have been found dead, showing signs of shock and drowning, said Kevin Baxter, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. At least 25 of those deaths have occurred since early February.

The commission has done a number of tests on the affected manatees for known marine toxins, but the results have come back negative, Baxter said. Currently, scientists are collecting and testing soil, water and macroalgae samples.

So far, scientists have reported that the only common link among the manatees is their change in dietary habits, Baxter said.

“What we’re seeing in common between this group of dead manatees is the ingestion of large amounts of macroalgae,” he said.

Katie Tripp, a UF alumna and director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club, said the dietary change might have been related to the loss of sea grass in the area, which is a main food source. Without the sea grass, manatees have been forced to find less nutritious sources such as the macroalgae.

“It’s not known in the past that this was toxic to manatees,” Tripp said.

A particular problem scientists face is the lack of a live specimen suffering from the strange ailment. The only manatees found have already died, Tripp said.

“It’s really important for anyone out on the waterways to be looking out for odd behavior from manatees,” she said. “That’s our best chance of getting them help in time.”

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