The Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic coast of Florida, USA, and the east coast of Puerto Rico provide contrasting environments in which the endangered West Indian Manatee Trichechus manatus experiences different thermal regimes and seagrass communities. We compare Manatee feeding behaviour in these two regions, examine the ecological effects of Manatee grazing on a seagrass community in the Indian River Lagoon, describe the utility of aerial surveys, radio tracking, and seagrass mapping to study Manatee feeding patterns, and develop hypotheses on sirenian feeding strategies in temperature and tropical seagrass communities. In both the Indian River Lagoon and Puerto Rico, Manatees were typically observed grazing in water depths = 2.0 m and more frequently on the most abundant seagrasses present in the community: Halodule wrightii in the Indian River Lagoon and Thalassia testudinum in eastern Puerto Rico. Where both H. wrightii and Syringodium filiforme were consumed in the Indian River Lagoon, Manatees tended to remove more S. filiforme than H. wrightii rhizome + root biomass. Even though 80 to 95% of the short-shoot biomass and 50 to 67% of the rhizome + root biomass were removed, grazed patches of H. wrightii and S. filiforme recovered significantly between February and August. H. wrightii may be both more resistant and resilient than S. filiforme to the impacts of Manatee grazing. Despite the significantly greater abundance of T. testudinum in Puerto Rico, Manatees exhibited selective feeding by returning to specific sites with abundant H. wrightii. They also appeared to feed selectively on T. testudinum shoots associated with clumps of the calcareous alga Halimeda opuntia. We hypothesize that Florida Manatees are less specialized seagrass grazers than Manatees in tropical regions like Puerto Rico. Continued research on Manatee grazing ecology in temperate to tropical seagrass communities will enable better protection and management of these vital and unique marine resources.
Additional publication details
Characterizing Manatee habitat use and seagrass grazing in Florida and Puerto Rico: Implications for conservation and management