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 about the animals in 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 our ability to detect animals traveling and communicating underwater in our area, UFMAR biologists and veterinarians have begun a pilot project to deploy an acoustic monitor capable of listening for the sounds dolphins and manatees produce. This capability will eventually be deployed in selected waters along our coast to detect cetaceans or manatees in the immediate area. A component of this research is in collaboration with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and Dr. Athena Rycyk from New College of Florida, who are investigating the potential for using individually-distinct properties of manatee vocalizations to identify animals. In partnership with (and financial support from) Save the Manatee Club and researchers Cora Berchem and Pat Rose, UFMAR was able to purchase a hydrophone and begin 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 by scientists in a number of different ways to study marine mammals, ranging from monitoring animal behavior to collecting expired breaths from drones looking at their microbiome and DNA. As part of our drone project, we plan to map the coastline in all three of the 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 the 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 with manatees that need to be rescued and relocated. We are working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and FWC to illustrate the usefulness of drones and develop protocols for flying drones over marine mammals during rescues.
Geomagnetism and Pilot Whale Stranding
The reason why offshore whales strand has been a source of speculation since humans began reporting this phenomenon. A long list of cofactors may be involved, including illness, infectious disease, and intoxication from biotoxins in their prey, to bad decisions made in unfamiliar environments. In this project, we are working with the US Geological Survey and the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program to analyze data collected during pilot whale strandings, the use of satellite tags placed on released animals, and their association with geologic factors that may be involved in determining where they strand. It is currently assumed these animals migrate based on geomagnetic cues from the sea floor. Other non-illness or intoxication-related influences may include gravity fluctuations, bathymetry, and storms. The use of satellite tags placed on released animals that have navigated back to deep water, including data from the release of six animals in two recent stranding and release events, may hold information on how they are moving through the Gulf of Mexico related to these factors. This project may help determine if there is a correlation between the Earth’s natural geomagnetic pathways that intersect and pilot whale stranding locations.
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*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.