A Talk on the Wild Side.
Each 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.
Manatees 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