Florida manatees can suffer ‘frostbite,’ starvation in the cold

Southeast

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The cold weather sweeping across the country isn’t just impacting people. In Tampa, Florida, dipping water temperatures can cause manatees “cold stress,” experts at Zoo Tampa said. It can be extremely harmful for the sea cows, and even cause a form of frostbite, said animal care supervisor Lisa Smith.

“You’ll see really bad lesions all over their bodies, some whitening of their skin,” Smith said.  

Manatees can only survive in waters over 68 degrees, so anything below that can become a serious problem. 

“They have to migrate into warm water sites, so that’s why if you’re around locally you’ll see them in power plants and springs and if they don’t make it there, that’s when they’ll get the cold stress,” she said.

In 2021, more than 1,000 manatees died in Florida waters, up from 830 in 2013, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There are about 7,520 wild manatees in Florida waters currently, according to state statistics.

Manatees in Florida are not only endangered by cold. At the same time, they are increasingly at risk of starvation as native seagrasses die. Pollution from agricultural and urban sources has triggered algae blooms that decimate the seagrass beds on which manatees depend — especially during cold winter months.

Florida wildlife officials have begun an experimental feeding program in the wild of cabbage and lettuce, similar to what manatees eat during rehabilitation. 

Manatee eating romaine lettuce
Manatee eating romaine lettuce in Florida waters, part of a new experimental feeding program to prevent starvation.

The program has had some success. A test facility at Indian River Lagoon on the east coast of Florida had its first takers of romaine lettuce this week, leading more manatees to join in, said Ron Mezich, chief of the effort’s provisioning branch at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We think it’s significant,” Mezich said in a remote news conference. “When the animals are there, we will continue to offer food and hope they take advantage of that.”

There are no immediate plans to expand the feeding program, officials said. It remains illegal for people to feed wild manatees on their own. 

The slow-moving, round-tailed mammals have rebounded enough to list them as a threatened species rather than endangered, although a push is on to restore the endangered tag given the starvation deaths. Experts say seagrass restoration — and a reduction in water pollution and climate change – are needed long-term. 

Back at Zoo Tampa, manatees sick due to the cold might need to stay in the facilities for months, if not longer. The sick sea cows are put in 80-degree pools and given food and medicine.

“If they come in young, they have to stay here until they’re about 600 pounds, which is about 2 years old,” said Smith, the zoo’s animal care supervisor. “Some of the cases that we got in last year are just reaching that mark this year and they’re getting ready for release.” 

She says it’s important for everyone to pitch in and help save these manatees. If you see a sick one on the waterways, immediately call Florida Fish and Wildlife.

The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliate WFLA contributed to this report..

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