Florida manatee, warm water refugia, cold stress, ecological modeling, site fidelity


Living at the northern limits of its geographic range, the Florida manatee is particularly susceptible to cold stress-related mortality during the winter months, with most deaths occurring in the lower two-thirds of the state. Contributing to this cold stress susceptibility is the manatee's limited physiological and behavioral responses available when thermally stressed. While capable of migrating south in response to falling water temperatures, manatees must still find warm water when ambient river temperature drops below 20°C for more than a few days. This is in part due to the species low metabolic rate, limited capacity for thermogenesis, and limited ability to raise its metabolic rate. Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures may result in cold stress syndrome, which involves a number of potentially life-threatening, if not fatal physiological changes. Survival during the winter months is therefore, dependent upon the manatee's ability to balance basic physiological needs, primarily the need to forage and to obtain fresh water with the need to stay warm. When identifying which animals are most susceptible and where, analyses of statewide manatee mortality records from 1996 through 2011 (n = 823) indicated that, size and location matter. Medium to large-sized calves accounted for the majority of documented death from cold stress (46.6%), while subadults and small calves were the least represented size classes (14.3 % and 9.5%, respectively). Adults slightly outnumbered subadults (15.8%). Males outnumbered females in all size classes but gender differences were not statistically significant. With regards to location, two areas of the state, the southwest and central east coasts showed the highest incidents of cold stress-related mortality. Both are regions with no primary, natural warm-water springs and whose principal warm-water refugia are power plant effluents. Brevard County on the central east coast is the area most at risk during cold weather events accounting for more than 25% of all cold stress deaths statewide. Warm-water sites within this region are few and relatively underrepresented in the literature in an area well-studied in terms of manatee abundance and distribution relative to the operational power plant. Results from cold stress data analyses emphasize the importance of identifying and characterizing the physical attributes of both known and suspected secondary warm-sites used by manatees in this region for both long and short term protection of the species, and its critical habitat. Three locations within Brevard County identified as passive thermal basins (PTBs), and classified as secondary warm-water sites, have been documented supporting in excess of 100 manatees on numerous occasions, and during winters of varying severity. Unique in physical appearance, distance to forage, hydrology including thermal profiles, and when it was used by manatees, each site challenged the accepted definitions and criteria of what constitutes an acceptable and appropriate warm-water site. Through analyses of photo-identification records, site fidelity at two of these warm-water sites, the Berkeley Canal and the Desoto Canal, was established for a minimum of 20 highly identifiable animals, 15 of which used adjacent sites within the same year, and 6 that used both sites but during different years. Observations of daily use patterns within the sites supported optimization of thermoregulation through adjustments in both vertical and horizontal movement, the latter of which seemed to follow the path of the sun. Manatees using the sites also made use of bottom sediment presumably to stay warm at all three locations. Temperature data indicated that water temperatures monitored in the sediment at secondary sites were some of the highest in the county. The predictable movements during all but the coldest weather fronts indicated that manatees utilized these sites during the early morning and afternoon hours when ambient river temperatures were coldest, gradually returning to the river to feed as ambient temperatures began to rise later in the afternoon. The availability of PTBs in proximity to primary warm-water sites within the region may provide an important component needed for manatees to successfully balance the need to forage with the need to stay warm by providing a network that allows for more efficient foraging while reducing exposure to sub-critical ambient river temperatures. The challenge of balancing the need to forage and to maintain homeostasis in the face of thermal stress is complex. This complexity was best approached and better understood through use of a manatee energetics model. The model was designed to facilitate simulation of an unlimited number of different case scenarios involving the exposure of virtually created manatees to a variety of winter conditions as might be experienced by real manatees in a natural system. Sixty-four different simulations were run using six virtual manatees of differing ages, gender, physical parameters, and knowledge of warm-water sites. Simulations were conducted using actual winter water temperature data from Brevard secondary sites and the ambient river from both a mild and a severe winter season. Outcomes, measured as changes in physical parameters indicative of body condition (i.e. mass, percent body fat, blubber depth, girths, etc.), showed that all else being equal, calves in the 2 year-old range fared poorly in all scenarios when compared to individuals of larger size. Subadults fared better than larger adults. This outcome illustrates the complex relationship between size, energy requirements and the synergistic effects of body mass, body fat and blubber thickness on SA:V ratio. Model outcomes agree closely with manatee cold stress mortality analyses predicting that medium to large-sized calves are most susceptible to CS, followed by adults, then subadults. Because all models are simplifications of complex systems, the manatee energetics model is not without its flaws and limitations. The current version of the model could not predict the point at which cold stress mortality would occur. However, a cold stress warning system incorporated into the design alerts the user if potential CSS is likely based on changing physical parameters. Another limitation was the inability of the model to account for the behavioral plasticity of individual subjects since virtual manatees respond to water temperatures based on the user defined rules. A number of additional limitations related to gaps in existing manatee data the gaps were identified and defined. Despite these gaps, the model is designed to allow for incorporation of additional interactions, feedback loops and relevant data as it becomes available and as additional physiological interactions and energy requirements are more clearly defined. Sensitivity analyses, a feature of the model that allowed for modifications in a number of physical as well as environmental parameters, provided an otherwise unlikely opportunity to see how incremental changes in input values, specifically the starting values for mass, percent body fat and blubber depth affected the model's outcome. Ultimately the goal of the model was to facilitate a better understanding of complex relationships by challenging our preconceived understanding of the manatee and its environment.


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Graduation Date





Worthy, Graham


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Conservation Biology; Applied Conservation Biology Track








Release Date

August 2015

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)


Dissertations, Academic -- Sciences; Sciences -- Dissertations, Academic

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Biology Commons