Brevard County's manatee, pelican deaths still a mystery

11:29 AM, Mar 26, 2013   |    comments
This pelican was found struggling in Indian Harbour Beach and eventually died.
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Melbourne, FL (Florida Today) -- The manatees are full of macroalgae; the pelicans packed with parasites. Both continue to die in growing numbers in Brevard County, with potential answers still weeks away.

"We're at 80 right now," Kevin Baxter, a spokesman with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said Monday of the manatees that have mysteriously died in Brevard since July.

That includes 25 carcasses found between March 10 and March 21 alone, Baxter said.

The sea cows have been drowning, with signs of shock and intestinal problems. Their carcasses appear otherwise healthy, but their digestive tracts are filled with thick drift algae, also called macroalgae, and not much of their usual seagrass staple diet.

Seagrass has dwindled sharply, virtually vanished in the lagoon, after a phytoplankton "superbloom" decimated most of the plant in 2011. A brown algae bloom that followed further shocked the lagoon system.

Excess algae can grow when too many nutrients from fertilizer runoff, septic tanks, the atmosphere and other sources enter the estuary.

Biologists have yet to identify any pathoghen, algae toxin or other substance that's killing the manatees or pelicans and aren't sure whether the two die-offs are even related.

Dead cormorants, a few bottlenose dolphins and redfish also have been reported recently in Brevard.

At least 230 pelicans have died in the county in the past several weeks.

Tests at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., have yet to yield many answers.

The first group of pelicans, received at the USGS lab on Feb. 22, tested negative for botulism, said Anne Ballmann, wildlife disease specialist at the lab. "There was some botulism concerns originally," Ballman said. "We have not been able to confirm botulism."

The dead birds found here have been very thin. But botulism generally kills birds quickly, leaving little time for the pelicans to become emaciated.

The USGS lab is culturing samples to test for bacteria and viruses as well, which should take a few weeks, Ballmann said.

Florida wildlife officials have notified the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to see whether the manatee deaths meet the criteria to trigger that federal agency to conduct its own formal investigation.

Warm temperatures in 2012 resulted in fewer manatees dying in Florida than the previous three years.

But a red tide lingering off Southwest Florida since September has killed a record 184 manatees in that part of the state so far this year. But no other significant fish kills, algae blooms or other toxic events that could kill birds have been reported recently in Brevard.

How to help

What to do if you see sick, dead or injured wildlife:

FWC's Wildlife Alert Hotline: 888-404-3922.

It is not advisable to handle any sick or dead birds or other wildlife, but citizens should report them at MyFWC.com

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