To properly understand and improve the potential for providing high level stranding responses of dolphins and manatees in the local environment, we have had to look at different approaches in how we gather information from the environment. With this area’s extensive wild coastal shoreline, few public beaches, limited access to water and low human population density, surveillance of animal populations is currently dependent on fishing enthusiasts and those few on the water. To add to public outreach and our volunteer network, UF MAR biologists and veterinarians have begun a pilot project in which we hope to deploy acoustic monitoring capability in selected waters along our coast to detect any cetaceans or manatees in the immediate area. A component of this research is in collaboration with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Project and Athena Rycyk PhD from New College who is investigating the potential for using manatee signature whistles to identify animals. In partnership with Save the Manatee Club, researchers Cora Berchem and Pat Rose, UFMAR was able to purchase a hydrophone and began collecting manatee vocalization data in Blue Springs State Park where manatees frequent in the colder months. As this project develops, it is hoped that manatees and dolphins can be identified by their vocalizations with a long term goal of using this capability of tracking their movements to help in understanding the use of shared waterways with people and marine mammals.
Drones are now being used in a number of different ways. As part of our drone project, we plan to map our coastline in all three counties we cover to document topographic changes, as well as expedite responses to marine mammal standings. Florida’s Big Bend experiences extensive tidal shifts, leaving grasslands and shallow areas with limited boat access. With beaches accounting for a small portion of our coastline, we heavily depend on our Carolina skiff and two kayaks. In order to mount an appropriate, effective, and timely response to a stranding report, it is important to know the details of the environment in which we are responding, how it changes throughout the day, and how we can best scan large areas between shore and navigable water for follow-up of reports of animals. With the drone data, we are able to facilitate what equipment may be needed to deal with changes in the local environment throughout the day or season. This research can be extremely beneficial for the team as we learn to navigate through our environment.
We also plan to use our drone in our efforts to locate marine animals that may not be visible from a boat. With the birds eye view that the drone provides, we are able to clearly see animals that may be in distress. Our drone has proven to be very advantageous on multiple search and rescue attempts. We are working with the US Fish and Wildlife Services to develop protocols for flying drones over marine mammals.
Geomagnetism and Pilot Whale Stranding
The cause of why offshore whales strand has been a source of speculation since humans began reporting this phenomenon. There is a long list of cofactors that may be involved from illness, infectious disease and intoxication from biotoxins in their prey to bad decisions made in unfamiliar environments with no background on what a shore is. In this project, we are working with the US Geological Survey to analyze data collected on pilot whale strandings and their association with geologic factors that may be involved in determining where they stand. It is currently assumed these animals migrate based on geomagnetic cues from the sea floor. Other non illness or intoxication possible influences may include gravity fluctuations, bathymetry and storms. The use of satellite tags placed on released animals that navigate back to deep water, including data from the release of 6 animals in two stranding events, may hold information on how they are moving through the Gulf of Mexico. This project is to determine if there is a correlation between the Earth’s natural geomagnetic hotspots and pilot whale stranding locations. This data can give insight to why these animals come ashore at specific times in association with gravity wells and the natural curvature of Florida.
Click on the images above to see full-size photos.
*All cetacean, manatee, and sea turtle efforts are conducted under proper permits and authorization. Cetacean efforts are conducted under a Stranding Agreement between NOAA/NMFS. Manatee efforts are conducted under FWS permit MA770191. Sea turtle efforts are conducted under FWC MTP-20-194.