The population dynamics of large, long-lived mammals are particularly sensitive to changes in adult survival. Understanding factors affecting survival patterns is therefore critical for developing and testing theories of population dynamics and for developing management strategies aimed at preventing declines or extinction in such taxa. Few studies have used modern analytical approaches for analyzing variation and testing hypotheses about survival probabilities in large mammals. This paper reports a detailed analysis of annual adult survival in the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), an endangered marine mammal, based on a mark-recapture approach. Natural and boat-inflicted scars distinctively 'marked' individual manatees that were cataloged in a computer-based photographic system. Photo-documented resightings provided 'recaptures.' Using open population models, annual adult-survival probabilities were estimated for manatees observed in winter in three areas of Florida: Blue Spring, Crystal River, and the Atlantic coast. After using goodness-of-fit tests in Program RELEASE to search for violations of the assumptions of mark-recapture analysis, survival and sighting probabilities were modeled under several different biological hypotheses with Program SURGE. Estimates of mean annual probability of sighting varied from 0.948 for Blue Spring to 0.737 for Crystal River and 0.507 for the Atlantic coast. At Crystal River and Blue Spring, annual survival probabilities were best estimated as constant over the study period at 0.96 (95% CI = 0.951-0.975 and 0.900-0.985, respectively). On the Atlantic coast, where manatees are impacted more by human activities, annual survival probabilities had a significantly lower mean estimate of 0.91 (95% CI = 0.887-0.926) and varied unpredictably over the study period. For each study area, survival did not differ between sexes and was independent of relative adult age. The high constant adult-survival probabilities estimated for manatees in the Blue Spring and Crystal River areas were consistent with current mammalian life history theory and other empirical data available for large, long-lived mammals. Adult survival probabilities in these areas appeared high enough to maintain growing populations if other traits such as reproductive rates and juvenile survival were also sufficiently high lower and variable survival rates on the Atlantic coast are cause for concern.
Additional publication details
Estimates of annual survival probabilities for adult Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris)