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Feb. 01, 2011

Count the Manatees!

by Krista Dyson

What do manatees do when the temperature drops? They head for the warm waters that are discharged from power stations, of course!

Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) are adapted to water temperatures of 70 degrees F or higher (21 degrees C). Manatees must find warmer waters when the water temperature gets too low. If water temps drop too far below 68 degrees F (20 degrees C), these marine mammals could die due to the stress of cold weather.

Manatee visits to the warm waters near power plants are an excellent example of a learned behavior in organisms. They remember where to find water that is the right temperature for surviving the cold snaps that hit South Florida. They come back year after year, eventually bring their offspring, and then the next generation of manatees learns where to go when the cold weather strikes in order to boost their chances of surviving the cold spell.

On exceptionally cold days, 500 or more manatees can stop by the Riviera Power Plant for a visit. Wildlife experts estimate that's five percent of the entire population of manatees on Earth. In human terms, it's like throwing a party and having 340 million people show up! Manatees are listed as an endangered species, so losing this percentage of the population due to the stress of cold weather would be tragic.

Luckily, Florida Power & Light officials are doing right by the manatees that have called the Riviera Beach waters their winter home. Engineers designed a water heating system that will continue to operate while the power plant itself is undergoing its renovation. Although it does use energy to operate and cost millions of dollars to install, it's an investment in wildlife conservation until the power plant is back in business in 2014. When the facility reopens, there are also plans to add an area dedicated to manatee viewing that will be open to the public.

In the meantime, you can watch the action on Florida Power & Light's live Manatee Cam - the colder the weather in South Florida the more manatees you'll be able to spot. After you check out the Manatee Cam post your comments below - what was the temperature and how many manatees did you count?

About Krista Dyson

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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