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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Stories Told by Manatee Scars

Red Hot Poker the ManateeEach scar on a manatee tells a story, and enabled a USGS biologist to identify this individual manatee as a lady nicknamed "Red Hot Poker." Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex’s Facebook page recently received a lot 
of interest when they posted a story of a female manatee completely covered in scars. The 
manatee known as “Red Hot Poker” has a history of visiting Crystal River dating back to 
1979! Cathy Beck is a wildlife biologist at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who was able 
to identify Red Hot Poker from her scars. This method of scar cataloging has been used 
for over three decades to estimate adult manatee survival and reproductive rates, and to 
study their life history.

We caught up with Cathy to learn more. 

How does scar cataloging help you keep track of manatees?
We’re able to identify some manatees by the scars and mutilations they've acquired 
during their lives, primarily from non-lethal encounters with boats. We use these unique 
features to identify and then "follow" these manatees through resightings using 
photographic documentation. Each photographic record includes date, location, and 
other details of the sighting, which allows us to document the manatee's habitat use and 
preference of a specific site, movements, reproductive status, etc. The collective records 
of these individual manatees (our sample from the population) allow us to estimate 
annual survival and reproduction for the Florida manatee population.  
 
What can we learn from their scars?
In addition to enabling individual identification, we sometimes can determine when, 
where, and how a manatee acquired its scars. For example, with fresh scars we can 
sometimes determine if it was hit by a boat, and if so, what part of the boat - propeller or 
hull, or type of boat. Manatees also may be scarred after exposure to very cold 
temperatures, and these features become evident during cold winters.

Scars on Red Hot Poker the ManateeManatees live an average of 40 years in the wild, making this lady very old. From her scars it would seem Red Hot Poker is certainly a survivor. Photo by Joyce Kleen, USFWS.

Do we know why the "Red Hot Poker Manatee" has so many scars?
Her age is most likely a major factor, but her numerous scars may also be due to her use 
of habitats that vary by season. During summer, manatees that have wintered at Crystal 
River move out onto the sea grass beds along the Gulf of Mexico. They may encounter 
more boat traffic during the summer, and are using areas that do not have boat speed 
regulations. Manatees often continue to acquire new features throughout their lives, i.e., 
they are repeatedly struck by boats leaving a permanent feature that we are able to use for 
identification.    
 
What else do we know about her life?
CR125, nicknamed Red Hot Poker, was first documented in November 1979 at Crystal 
River. She is not our oldest known, and still living, manatee, but she is one of the earliest 
manatees that we photo-documented. We know that she is over 36-years-old (she was an 
adult in 1979), and has had many encounters with boats through the years. We have 
documented CR125 at Crystal River nearly every winter since her first sighting in 1979. In fact, unlike some other manatees, she has never been sighted elsewhere! She's also 
been documented with 11 calves from 1981-2010.  

Do the majority of manatees have scars? 
By the time they are adults, many, maybe most, manatees have at least one permanent 
identifying mark, primarily a scar or mutilation from being hit by a boat. In clear waters 
like Crystal River, the evidence of repeated strikes is especially apparent.

Is this a threat to their health??
It depends on the severity of the boat encounter. Since many manatees have a large 
number of scars from different encounters, it appears that some individuals are okay, but 
others may not be. We currently are analyzing the data in an effort to determine if 
acquisition of these features does (or doesn't) have an affect on long-term survival and/or 
reproduction.

 

-- Katherine Taylor, Digital Content Specialist, Southeast Region

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