INFLUENCE OF POWER PLANTS AND OTHER WARM-WATER REFUGES ON FLORIDA MANATEES

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Abstract

Because of limited tolerance to cold, most Florida manatees survive cold winter periods by aggregating at warm-water discharges from power plants and natural springs in central and northern Florida. Many power plants used by manatees may soon be retired. When this occurs, some people assume manatees will move to warmer areas in southern Florida; others fear they will stay near retired plants and sustain high levels of cold-related deaths causing a decline in abundance. To assess these possibilities, we examine warm-water habitats, population structure and movement, cold-related deaths, and information on possible historical manatee distribution. Winter water temperatures even in southernmost Florida periodically fall below manatee tolerance levels. To survive such periods, manatees use two types of warm-water refuges: warm-water discharges, and passive thermal basins that cool slowly, thereby temporarily retaining warm temperatures. During the coldest periods, perhaps 60% of all manatees use 10 power plants and 15% use four natural springs; most others use thermal basins in southern Florida. Site fidelity to these refuges appears to be the principal factor segregating manatees into at least four subpopulations. Since 1986, rates of cold-related deaths in southernmost Florida (10.0%) have exceeded those in areas with natural springs in central and northern Florida (8.8%). Our findings suggest that warm-water springs in northern Florida offer better winter habitat than thermal basins in southern Florida and are better able to support large numbers of manatees. Although evidence is scant, we suggest that manatees historically overwintered principally at northern springs, but that Pre-Columbian and European hunting restricted their winter range to southernmost Florida by the early 1900s. We also suggest that southernmost Florida may not be able to sustain a large influx of displaced of manatees in the absence of power plants, and that warm-water springs in northern Florida should be considered the most important source of natural warm-water habitat.

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