Manatee tracking more than just a scavenger hunt

(WKRG) – An endangered species roams coastal Alabama’s waterways and you may not even know it. They are large majestic animals that scientist want to learn more about. I took a boat ride to catch a glimpse of these animals and learn how scientists track them.

It was a beautiful August day that local scientists from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab spent searching the water for manatees. But it wasn’t just a random scavenger hunt. We had special tools to find tagged manatees.

“It’s basically just sort of a large softball size stryofoam float. It looks very much like a crab trap float,” said Dr. Ruth Carmichael. Dr. Carmichael is a Dauphin Island Sea Lab Marine Scientist who has been studying manatees for eight years.

The tags are specially designed for two purposes. First, the safety of the manatee is considered. When tagged, a manatee gets as rubber-like belt that has certain break away points. That way if the floating tag gets caught, the belt just rips off. The other purpose is for tracking.

“That allows us to track them in three different ways,” said Dr. Carmichael. “It allows us to track them by the radio frequency, but also by the satellite so that we can see that in the computer before we go out in the field and see where the animals have last been picked up by the satellite. So it gives us the chance to gives us the chance to make a little bit more targeted trip so we’re not out here looking for a needle in a haystack.”

We ended up searching all day but didn’t find a manatee. The scientists spent the day out on the water and got a call about a dead manatee after I left. The manatee was found near Fowl River in Mobile Bay and scientists are still looking into the cause of death.

In Alabama, the biggest cause of death for manatees is cold stress. Manatees typically migrate towards southern Florida by late November but if some stay and the water temperatures fall below 68 degrees, then cold stress could result. But still a lot of research needs to be done on their migratory pattern.

“They were actually thought to be accidental in the state of Alabama,” stated Dr. Carmichael. “Due in large part to those public sightings and also now to our ability to tag and directly track animals, we know that that’s, in fact not true. They’re not accidental. They’re at least regular seasonal visitors and some of them come back year after year.”

Scientists hope to keep tagging and tracking more manatees. If you spot a manatee near you, call 1-866-493-5803. Your call will be completely anonymous so please leave a detailed message of when and where you saw the manatee to help scientists locate it.

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