Ask A Scienceblogger: To Protect and Serve

As a newly-minted ScienceBlogger, now I get to chime-in on all the fun "Ask A ScienceBlogger" questions. This week's question is:

"Assuming that time and money were not obstacles, what area of scientific research, outside of your own discipline, would you most like to explore? Why?"

As an undergrad, I had a pretty hard time choosing a major. This wasn't due to my lack of finding something I liked to do, I just didn't want to choose between a lot of fascinating fields. Finally I settled on what I considered the "final fronteir" in medical science: neuroscience, and neither time nor money (obviously) was a factor in that. I love neuroscience best. But, if I had to choose another field, that wasn't a photojournalist for the National Geographic, I'd probably go into marine biology. Specifically, I'd like to go back to studying manatees in Florida!!!. (More under the fold....)


I only got to study these fascinating animals for a summer, at Mote Marine Observatory in Longboat Key, Florida, but I was hooked by their gentle nature. Manatees are vegetarian mammals, weighing from 1000-2000 lbs, who spend all their time grazing in shallow freshwater springs. They are a vital part of the Floridian ecosystem, as they eat tons of canal-clogging water plants and fertilize the rivers with their dung. They have no natural predators, and are not instinctively afraid of humans. Unfortunately they share the Florida waterways with fast speedboats, which shred their backs with boat propellers. This is in large part due to their slow-moving bodies, and theoretically, poor hearing and eye-sight. Manatees have evolved to find their plant food with their agile, bewhiskered faces (vibrissae), which are sensitive and finely innervated. The reason I would like to spend time reseaching manatees would be to aid in their conservation, and to inform people who make the laws in Florida as to why manatees should be protected. The research I was participating in was a study to test their visual acquity underwater, in an effort to understand how good (or bad) their eyesight really was. This evidence can be used as a tool to aid in their defense, specifically by requiring boats to slow down in manatee zones. There are always plenty of people to come to the defense of animals such as dolphins and pandas, but few will take up the cause of an animal that doesn't do anything cute, and itsn't particularly smart.
A few days ago, manatees were removed from the endangered species list by Florida's wildlife commission. I'm happy to see that none of the laws currently in place to protect these animals will change, and that the population has increased to about 3,100 manatees in the last count. But, it will take time to figure out whether this rebound is due to increased number, or better counting measures, as some have suggested.

Manatee Facts:
- Closest surviving relative is the elephant
- Although manatees have a large, round pancake tail, they also have toenails on it.
- They do vocalize, in the range of 3-5 kHz
- A water treatment plant in Guyana has three manatees that continually clean the storage canals of weeds
- The lifespan of manatees is unknown, but the oldest (Snooty) has been in captivity for over 40 years
- Those that study manatees in the wild often tell them apart by the unique scars on each one, left by boats

More FAQ here.


More like this

Some news from my old stomping grounds at Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida. Back in undergrad I worked there with the manatees Hugh and Buffet to test their visual acuity (its bad), now the marine observatory is attempting to test the hearing of manatees. This is essential, as the most likely…
This is really upsetting, especially to someone who used to study manatees: Florida has been toying with the idea of down-grading manatees' "endangered" status and relaxing the amount of protection they receive. Protective laws include (and consist mostly of) laws which force boaters to slow down…
I grew up in Florida, in central Florida to be exact. As a kid we went to Blue Springs and other manatee havens on field trips, to observe these gentle and curious animals. They are huge, and as they tend to inhabit shallow areas of the Florida coastal waterways its easy to see them in the clear…
As alerted by other ScienceBloggers, I have recently learned that the US Fish & Wildlife Service is proposing to the White House that Florida's manatee be removed from the "endangered" list, downgrading the marine mammal to merely "threatened." The result would be a relaxation of boating…