What’s A Manatee Doing In Virginia?

manateeVirginians are excited this week because a manatee has come to visit. It was spotted this weekend in the Appomattox River (see video below). Manatees are residents of Florida, so what’s this one doing so far up the East Coast? Well, it’s not actually all that far out of its territory if you consider that manatees have swum as far north as Cape Cod. It seems that sometimes Florida’s state marine mammal likes to wander. But why?

Well, no one has ever asked the manatees (or if they have, they never got a good answer), but news reports describing various incidences of manatees in the north have plenty of speculation: The AP report about Virginia’s current visitor, for example, says that manatees sometimes leave Florida when waters there get too warm; they go north to cool off. A 2006 story about a Cape Code manatee says that it’s common for manatees to travel up to the shallow areas off the Carolinas. USGS wildlife biologist Cathy Beck speculated that the manatee followed a warm current up the coast to Massachusetts.

Manatee sightings north of the Carolinas are not uncommon these days. Baltimore has even had a repeat visitor, nicknamed Chessie, that has shown up multiple times since 1994. But whether more manatees are swimming north in the summer or more people are noticing them isn’t known.

But for now wandering manatees are just an interesting oddity, and perhaps a distraction from the bigger problems that the species faces. See, the Florida manatee (a subspecies of Trichechus manatus) is in trouble. The IUCN lists them as endangered and says there are fewer than 2,500 individuals. More than 200 manatees died in a deadly algal bloom earlier this year. They’re victims of habitat loss and often in conflict with the fishing industry (manatees get entangled in fishing gear). Boat collisions are also a huge danger. In 2010, for instance, 83 animals were killed in encounters with boats. One newspaper estimated that this year manatees are dying from all these various causes at a rate of 100 per month.

Some groups in Florida have petitioned to have the manatee’s status upgraded from Endangered to Threatened, noting that aerial surveys of the animals show that the Florida population has increased in recent years. But Caryn Self-Sullivan, a conservation biologist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, argued in a blog post earlier this year that there’s little reason to change the mammal’s classification. Aerial surveys don’t produce reliable counts; mild winter conditions and poor visibility can skew the results. And changing the manatee’s status to Threatened would still indicate that they were in danger of extinction and in need of protection. “To reduce protection would likely produce a significant and deleterious effect on the manatee population in Florida,” she writes.

Classifying the manatee as Threatened wouldn’t immediately change any of the laws that protect the animals. But this is all moot for now; the reclassification discussion is on hold. That would seem to be good news, except that the hold is in response to this year’s high death rate. Manatees just can’t get a break.

Image courtesy of flickr user NOAA’s National Ocean Service; video from cody_beeler on Instagram

Dolphins Help One Of Their Own

Despite Flipper’s reputation for adorableness, dolphins really are dangerous, aggressive animals. That said, there are times when we’re all reminded why they’re known for cuteness.

Kyum Park of the Cetacean Research Institute in Ulsan, South Korea, and colleagues in July 2008 spotted one pod of long-beaked dolphins carrying out a display of particularly bittersweet behavior. According to the story reported in Marine Mammal Science, a female of the group was in trouble. Her pectoral flippers were paralyzed, and she was having difficulty swimming or even staying afloat.

But others in her group soon helped out, trading off swimming with their injured companion, and creating a raft of dolphins to keep her from drowning.

Sadly, they weren’t able to save her. But as she sank, five of her friends stayed with her, touching her body, as if they were mourning her loss.

It’s difficult to assign motives to such actions — after all, we can’t ask a dolphin why it did something — but Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., told New Scientist that rescuing an injured member of the group could help the pod to maintain its territory, preserve shared genes, or maintain the group’s bond. “It makes a lot of sense in a highly intelligent and social animal for there to be support of an injured animal,” McComb said.

Whether the actions constitute empathy is harder to say. But with such feelings sometimes lacking in the human world, it certainly is good to see something like it, even among deadly animals.