West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus) were tracked along the Atlantic coast of Florida and Georgia (N = 83 manatees, n = 439 tag deployments, 1986-1996) and in eastern Puerto Rico (N = 8, n = 43, 1992-1996) using conventional and satellite-based radio-telemetry systems. A floating radio-tag, attached by a flexible tether to a padded belt around the base of the tail, enabled us to track manatees in saltwater environments. The tag incorporated VHF (very high frequency) and ultrasonic transmitters for field tracking and tag recovery, and an Argos satellite-monitored transmitter for remote tracking. We located each animal in the field about twice per week, received more than 60 000 good-quality Argos locations, and recovered tags in over 90% of deployments. The tag was designed to detach from the belt when entangled to prevent injury or drowning, and this often led to premature termination of tracking bouts. We had considerable success, however, in retagging belted manatees without recapture (97% of 392 retagging events). Most individuals were radio-tagged more than once (median = 3.0, maximum = 43) for a median total duration of 7.5 months (maximum = 6.8 yr). Data obtained through Argos have been valuable in addressing questions relating to long-distance movements, site fidelity, and identification of high-use areas. Fine-scale analyses of manatee habitat use and movements may require restricting the data set to the highest location quality or developing new analytical techniques to incorporate locational error. Field tracking provided useful ancillary data on life-history parameters, but sample sizes were small and survival estimates imprecise. Modification of the existing tag design to include Global Positioning System (GPS) functionality, with its finer spatial and temporal resolution, will offer new opportunities to address critical research and management problems facing this endangered species.
Additional publication details
Radio-tracking manatees from land and space: tag design, implementation, and lessons learned from long-term study