Thu, Dec 30, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Manatees paddle to warm water to escape winter chill

AP, APOLLO BEACH, FLORIDA

People aren’t the only ones in Florida who don’t like cold weather.

Manatees — giant aquatic mammals with flat, paddle-shaped tails — are swimming out of the chilly Gulf of Mexico waters and into warmer springs and power plant discharge canals. On Tuesday, more than 300 manatees floated in the outflow of Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station.

“It’s like a warm bathtub for them,” said Wendy Anastasiou, an environmental specialist at the power station’s manatee viewing center. “They come in here and hang out and loll around.”

Cold weather can weaken manatees’ immune systems and eventually kill them. State officials said this year has been a deadly year for the animals: Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 17, 246 manatees died from so-called “cold stress.” During the same time period last year, only 55 manatees died from the cold.

Tampa Bay and Gulf water temperatures are hovering around 10oC, Anastasiou said. When the water dips below 20oC, manatees seek warmer waters. The water temperature in the power plant’s Big Bend canal ranges from about 18oC to 24oC, Anastasiou said.

Even though they’re huge animals, manatees are very cold sensitive.

“They’re not blubbery mammals. They’re very lean mammals,” Anastasiou said. “They need the warmth. They need a warm place to go.”

The herbivores will brave the cold temperatures to forage for sea grass but will sometimes stay in the warm canal without eating for days.

Adult manatees can weigh up to 544kg and grow to be 3.05m long. During the warmer months, manatees leave Florida and can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts — although sightings along the Gulf Coast and near the Carolinas are also common.

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