Who loves manatees?
Researchers monitoring cardiac function in endangered gentle giants
By Sarah Carey
Leisurely swims in warm, tropical waters fueled by the gaze of admiring fans and a healthy vegetarian diet. The life of a manatee hardly seems likely to prompt concerns about heart disease. But UF researchers say the lumbering, lovable sea cow’s ticker deserves a closer look because of the animal’s endangered status.
That’s why they’ve developed a technique to test for cardiac problems in endangered manatees, both in the wild and in captivity. The new technique will enhance knowledge of how the manatee heart functions.
The UF researchers are using the technique to gather data they hope to share with wildlife and zoo veterinarians to ultimately save more manatee lives. Collaborating with scientists from Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s marine mammal pathology laboratory in St. Petersburg, they are using echocardiography on the large creatures, making use of a specially designed table built to hold animals weighing up to 2,000 pounds.
“There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge base on basic anatomy and physiology of manatees due to the obvious limitations of working with a 1,000- to 1,500-pound animal that spends its entire life in the water,” said Trevor Gerlach, an intern in UF’s aquatic animal health program and lead author on a paper that documents the first phase of the researchers’ study in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine. “Due to their current endangered status, it is important that we understand the animal in its entirety so that we can better tailor conservation efforts for the species.”
The researchers’ long-term goal is to provide practitioners at rehabilitation facilities and those working in the field with data from clinically healthy animals. Such animals could be compared with animals of concern to determine if cardiac disease is present.