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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 
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 


-- Katherine Taylor, Digital Content Specialist, Southeast Region

5 Fascinating Facts about the Desert Tortoise

Betsy Painter, working in our Ecological Services Program, tells us about desert tortoises.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS

From March 21 to April 4, we are highlighting the western state of Utah and its geographical charm and the impressive restoration efforts going on there in the field, like the Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project in the City of West Jordan. Now we put a spotlight on an animal in Utah listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Natural totem pole-shaped rock spires, called hoodoos, and crimson-colored canyons are easily spotted throughout the deserts of Utah, while a smaller, mobile natural wonder exists that is less likely to be seen—the desert tortoise. Here are five fascinating facts to share with friends and family to help raise awareness for this federally threatened animal: 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS

1. The desert tortoise is one of the most elusive inhabitants of Western deserts, spending up to 95 percent of its life underground. It’s not that it’s shy; it just prefers escaping the intense heat of summer and cold of winter.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Beth Jackson/USFWS 

2. This desert reptile uses its strong limbs and claws to dig underground burrows three to six feet deep, and there it camps out for most of its days. The majority of desert visitors will not see a tortoise. But if you plan a trip for early spring, and are patient, Mother Nature may grant you a rare sighting.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

3. The desert tortoise can completely withdraw its head and limbs within its shell, leaving only horny scales visible to predators. Male tortoises have large curved gular horns that protrude from their lower shells underneath their neck and head. They use these horns to combat other males, and for butting and nudging females during courtship —an  unconventional way to pursue a romantic interest, but it works! 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

4. Have you ever wondered what sound a tortoise makes? Its vocal ranges vary with a multitude of sounds, including hisses, grunts, pops, whoops, huhs, echs, bips, etc. These little desert rangers have a lot to say, and when “words” fail, head bobbing speaks loud and clear as a warning for combative behavior. 

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS 

5. Finally, the desert tortoise has a large bladder capable of storing more than 40 percent of its body weight in water, urea, uric acid and nitrogenous wastes. A common defensive behavior when molested or handled is to empty the bladder, leaving the tortoise at a considerable disadvantage during dry periods. We don’t blame the little guys! Sometimes fear’s reflexes are unstoppable. It’s best not to handle a desert tortoise if you are fortunate enough to encounter one in the wild.

 Desert tortoise Photo by Roy C. Averill-Murray/USFWS

Where in the World is the Wintering Piping Plover? Part II

Great Lakes piping plover
The Great Lakes piping plover Of,RL:X,b seen at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan in 2015. She was spotted on the northern coast of Cuba in early 2016. Photo by Alice Van Zoeren

For the first time ever, a rare Great Lakes piping plover has been spotted spending the winter in Cuba. Typically Great Lakes piping plovers winter in tidal inlets along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, though a handful have been reported wintering in the Bahamas and also for the first time ever, in Cancun, Mexico, this winter.

HERstory: Tracy Diver

 Tracy Diver
Tracy Diver with a Razorback sucker. Photo by Eliza Gilbert/USFWS

March is Women’s History Month. We would like to recognize women in our ranks conserving our natural resources in the Fish and Wildlife Service. See others at www.flickr.com/groups/womeninscience/pool/.

A self-described “desert rat,” Tracy Diver is a fish biologist at the Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center (SNARRC) in Dexter, New Mexico.  Her specialty is genetics and she is fully immersed in research that she finds quite gratifying.

“My work with rare desert fishes is challenging and invigorating, and I am fortunate to work with so many people who wish to conserve our natural world,” says Diver. “Nearly every day is a good work day for me.”

Her work day may involve microscopes and statistical analyses; all with an eye to learn more about imperiled fishes found in the Southwest. She’s researched the genetic diversity of two small rare minnows, the Guzmán beautiful shiner and Yaqui beautiful shiner; studied the relationship of Colorado pikeminnow and bonytail to growth rates; and will soon research the reproductive ecology of humpback chub.

The most influential people in Diver’s life were her parents, both scientists. Her mother’s success in horticulture stands as an inspiration and a strong example to never give up. And toward that end, Diver says this for young women: “Pursue a career you are passionate about—and never give up on your goals.”

Learn more about the SNARRC here. www.fws.gov/southwest/fisheries/dexter/research.html


Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project: A Natural Work of Heart

 American beaver on a Jordan River wetland pond.  Credit: Karri Smith, Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve
American beaver on a Jordan River wetland pond. Photo by Karri Smith/Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve

Imagine you have taken a break from your busy work or school day in your city life to go for a stroll in a nearby natural landscape for fresh air. The city lights are gone and the foggy skies have cleared, and you’re stopped in your path by the sight of the Big Dipper over a willow tree or a kingfisher diving into a river and resurfacing with a fish in its beak. These kinds of moments bring wonder and appreciation for the natural world and refresh people for their important everyday work in the city.

Now imagine that this flourishing natural park space was once in rough shape from floods, pollution, erosion and non-native plant species invading the area, and you and your fellow community members were a part of volunteer efforts to commence the restoration of the habitat. This is the story of the Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project in Utah. It is taking the combined efforts of the Service’s Utah Field Office, federal and state agencies, the City of West Jordan, and community volunteers to bring vegetation and enhanced wildlife habitat out of dirt and a run-down environment for the satisfaction and enjoyment of the people and their wildlife neighbors. Find out how people came together to kick off this ambitious restoration project and how they will have the help of an unexpected partner—the American beaver: http://1.usa.gov/1Pnbd3A.

Rocket Scientist and Bear River Volunteer Bob Ebeling Dies

 Bob Ebeling
Al Trout and Bob Ebeling repair a water structure.

Kathi Stopher, the visitor services manager at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, remembers a wonderful member of the Bear River family who passed away March 21.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge has lost a great friend with Bob Ebeling's passing.  His legacy spans the generations: As a rocket booster engineer, conservationist, community organizer, fundraiser, and refuge Friend and volunteer for more than 27 years, Robert Venon Ebeling began a second career when walked into the office of Bear River Refuge Manager Al Trout and announced that “he was here to help" restore the 50 miles of dikes and 50 water-control structures that had been lost to the Great Salt Lake flooding, circa 1983-89. 


In the Words of Marty the Zebra: This lemur project in Madagascar is crackalackin’!

Madagasar Madagascar, “Lemur Land.” Photo by Son of Groucho, creative commons license

Betsy Painter of our International Affairs team tells us about some important work in Madagascar.

When the motley crew of African animals in the animated movie, Madagascar, encounters King Julien, “self-proclaimed Lord of the Lemurs” and “Robot King of the Monkey Things” for the first time, they are baffled by his bright, beady eyes, long nose, lean, furry body and big bushy tail, not to mention the bizarre crown of leaves on his head.

“He’s got style.”-Marty the Zebra. “What is he, like, king of the guinea pigs?”-Alex the Lion. “I think it’s a squirrel.”-Melman the Giraffe. “Definitely a squirrel.”-Alex the Lion.

 lemur Ring-tailed Lemur, King Julien’s species. Photo by Tambako The Jaguar,creative commons license

Inspired by nature’s actual lemur species, King Julien and his lively, lovable subjects are not far off from the real thing when it comes to location and looks. Just as in the film, lemurs live on Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, and are found nowhere else in the wild.

The island was once a part of a massive supercontinent known as Gondwana, until it broke away from Africa and India millions of years ago. It drifted off on its own like a boat driven by plate tectonics, brimming with numerous plants and animals onboard. Years of isolation allowed Madagascar to evolve into its own magical world with a unique richness of species spread over jungles, plateaus, mountains, rivers and coastlines.

Over time, lemurs adapted to fit specific spots around the island, which is why they came to have different facial attributes, coat markings and body types, as seen in the movie. Peculiar at first glance, they are not monkeys or guinea pigs or squirrels, but a primate species of their own accord, part of a group called “promisimians.” They are delightfully different from any other mammal on earth, with their constantly curious dispositions and life rhythms reflecting their deep connection to nature’s seasons. For instance, they hibernate when vegetation and insects become too scarce during dry seasons of the year. Their only nemesis in nature, like in the film, is the fossa (pronounced “foosa”), a cat-like predator also endemic to the island. However, not mentioned in the cartoon, are the other, perhaps more preeminent threats: habitat destruction and hunting by humans. To battle the human threats, we partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to protect a critically endangered species of lemur, the silky sifaka, in Madagascar’s Makira Natural Park. 


HERstory: Angela Palacios James

Angela James
Angela James electrofishing Gila River. Photo by Eileen Henry/USFWS

March is Women’s History Month. We would like to recognize women in our ranks conserving our natural resources in the Fish and Wildlife Service. See others at www.flickr.com/groups/womeninscience/pool/.

It’s been said we become what catches us unawares. Angela Palacios James, a fish biologist at the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, was caught by the Missouri Department of Conservation in its endeavor to reach inner-city youth in Kansas City. At age 17, she landed a summer job as a Conservation Aide that afforded copious field experience. It was with the help of her father, says James, that through his diligence that she got to her summer job every day, 50 minutes from home.   

Though it was toward a doctor of veterinary medicine degree she first steered in college, she eventually majored in Renewable Natural Resources at the University of Arizona.  In college, she learned to track javelina with radio telemetry, handle live raptors, and care for amphibians and reptiles. 

Presently, James maintains aquaculture facilities in her Albuquerque office and in the field she assists with population surveys of fishes in rivers throughout New Mexico, from Gila trout to Colorado pikeminnow.

“There are no bad days,” says James. “I can feed fish in the morning, maintain tank systems, and spend time in the rivers or in classrooms with young students.”

James is the lead biologist in her office for education activities, such as Native Fish in the Classroom. Children in area schools learn about native New Mexican fishes under James’ tutelage by raising them in aquaria where they watch them live and grow, daily. And who knows, maybe one of the youngsters will be caught unawares by James’ work and steer toward a career in conservation, too. 

Learn more about the work of Angela Palacio James, here: www.fws.gov/southwest/fisheries/nmfwco/index.html

Returning Endangered Black Footed Ferrets to the Colorado Prairie

black-footed ferret
Louise wanders in the "ferret box."

 Open Spaces is featuring regular posts by Student Conservation Association(SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.orgToday, Lauren Kurtz, an SCA environmental education intern at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colorado, checks in.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is many things. It’s a tongue-twisting designation for one. It’s a former EPA Superfund site. Situated on Colorado’s eastern plains with  the city of Denver on one side and the largest airport in America on the other, it’s the largest Urban Wildlife Refuge in the country. This unique place is also safe haven for wildlife including bison, bald eagles, burrowing owls, and most recently, one of the most endangered mammals in North America, the black-footed ferret.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been planning for the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets for nearly two years. When I started in May, ferrets were a routine topic of conversation. For months, staff meetings were jam-packed with phrases like “prairie dog transects” and “ferret box.”

black-footed ferret
A black-footed ferret checks out its surroundings.

One priority was deciding the best location for the ferrets. Since a ferret’s diet consists almost entirely of prairie dogs and they use abandoned burrows for their shelter, this meant surveying prairie dog towns this summer and last. Surveyors walked 107 miles through prairie dog habitat to get approximate prairie dog density per square mile and to find towns with ideal burrow distribution for the ferrets’ eventual reproduction and dispersal.


Monarch Conservation Takes Hold in Des Moines, Iowa

Monarch butterfly on switchgrass. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS

Des Moines Mayor T. M. Franklin Cownie recently became the first in Iowa to pledge his support for monarch butterfly recovery as part of the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Now, more than 600,000 people in the greater Des Moines area can help  create a future filled with monarchs. Your town can join in the fight to save the butterfly, too.

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