The endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) inhabits the subtropical waters of the southeastern United States, where hurricanes are a regular occurrence. Using mark-resighting statistical models, we analyzed 19 years of photo-identification data and detected significant annual variation in adult survival for a subpopulation in northwest Florida where human impact is low. That variation coincided with years when intense hurricanes (Category 3 or greater on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale) and a major winter storm occurred in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Mean survival probability during years with no or low intensity storms was 0.972 (approximate 95% confidence interval = 0.961-0.980) but dropped to 0.936 (0.864-0.971) in 1985 with Hurricanes Elena, Kate, and Juan; to 0.909 (0.837-0.951) in 1993 with the March "Storm of the Century"; and to 0.817 (0.735-0.878) in 1995 with Hurricanes Opal, Erin, and Allison. These drops in survival probability were not catastrophic in magnitude and were detected because of the use of state-of-the-art statistical techniques and the quality of the data. Because individuals of this small population range extensively along the north Gulf coast of Florida, it was possible to resolve storm effects on a regional scale rather than the site-specific local scale common to studies of more sedentary species. This is the first empirical evidence in support of storm effects on manatee survival and suggests a cause-effect relationship. The decreases in survival could be due to direct mortality, indirect mortality, and/or emigration from the region as a consequence of storms. Future impacts to the population by a single catastrophic hurricane, or series of smaller hurricanes, could increase the probability of extinction. With the advent in 1995 of a new 25- to 50-yr cycle of greater hurricane activity, and longer term change possible with global climate change, it becomes all the more important to reduce mortality and injury from boats and other human causes and control the loss of foraging habitat to coastal development.
Additional publication details
Lower survival probabilities for adult Florida manatees in years with intense coastal storms