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There's a less than 50 percent chance manatees will exist in the next 1,000 years. UCF researchers say the springs may be the only refuge for the future for these gentle giants, unless we can change our ways.

"Loss of warm water habitat is threatening them in the future, but there are several other major threats to the manatee," said Madison Hall, a Ph.D. candidate in UCF's Physiology Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab. "Some of the warm water habitats that they rely on can be changed by humans in the future. There are power plants that can be out of use in years from now. The manatees will not have anywhere to go during the winter, and without anywhere to go, they are so sensitive to cold water and cold snaps that they can die from cold stress."

Hall is a graduate student who studies seascape genetics and species distribution modeling for West Indian manatees.

"I am building a species distribution model for manatees to describe what environmental variables are associated with manatee occurrence," Hall said. "So, where do manatees occur and what do they need out of their habitat? Once a model is developed, you can project it under different climate change scenarios. You can predict where manatees may occur in the future and determine if that habitat exists then or needs to be protected."

Hall says that with human development of coastal systems, we are destroying their habitat and main source of food — sea grass.

"One thing I'm anticipating might be important is the distance from shore or seagrass coverage; those are two variables I'm looking at for a seascape genetics model," she said. "If those things wind up being significant, it would mean we would have to conserve seagrasses and restore areas that are close to shore."

With limiting locations to move to for winter and finding food, Hall said their population is expected to decline from 10 to 20 percent over the next 40 years with a loss of warm water habitats, increase in harmful algal blooms, loss of seagrasses and from direct and indirect human-related mortality.

Graham Worthy, a Provosts Distinguished Professor of Biology and the Hubbs-SeaWorld Endowed Professor of Marine Mammalogy at UCF, describes how crucial the springs are.

"The springs are crucial refuges because of temperature. Blue Springs is one of many springs where manatees can get into water that's relatively warm," he explained.

Hall said they start their migration to winter habitats when waters reach around 20 to 22 degrees Celsius, which would be 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They return to the same springs or winter habitat yearly. They learn where to go from their mom during their calf years.

"Blue Springs is a designated Manatee Refuge and the winter home to a growing population of West Indian Manatees. The spring and spring run are closed during manatee season, mid-November through March 15. Swimming or diving with manatees is not permitted; this rule is strictly enforced," according to Floridastatepark.org.

Savethemanatee.org has a live webcam of the manatees at Blue Springs along with the latest manatee updates. Through the site, you can adopt a manatee for $25.

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Veronica Brezina is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Email her at veronicabrezina@gmail.com.

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