Manatees, the herbivorous marine animals sometimes referred to as “sea cows,” are migrating out of cold Gulf of Mexico waters into more temperate Florida power plant discharge canals, AP reported Tuesday. 300 of the majestic creatures congregated in the waters near Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station on Tuesday, basking in the warmth of the plant’s outflow.
Cold weather poses a serious threat to manatees; chilly conditions can weaken their immune systems and eventually kill them.
“They’re not blubbery mammals. They’re very lean mammals,” Wendy Anastasiou, an environmental specialist at the power plant’s manatee viewing center, told AP. “They need the warmth. They need a warm place to go.”
This year has been especially brutal, with 246 manatees dying of “cold stress” between Jan. 1 and Dec. 17–up from 55 in 2009 and just 22 in 2008.
Wendy Quigley, a spokeswoman with the state-operated Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, says this year’s spike in cold-related manatee deaths is troubling.
“Obviously we’re very concerned as an agency about the unusually high number of manatee deaths this year,” Quigley told AP.
She added that the figures don’t even include the region’s most recent cold snap, which sent temperatures tumbling into the 30s in South Florida this week. Worse, scientists only counted deaths that were confirmed to be cold-related, but 699 manatees were found dead this year in total, and it’s likely that many of them died from cold stress.
Illegal poaching, frequent collisions with motorboats, and low reproductive rates previously drove the species to endangerment, but in April 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Florida’s manatee population had rebounded. The species now is now classified with a conservation status of “vulnerable” rather than “endangered.”