A research team from the University of Florida and the US Geological Survey suggests the lack of genetic diversity in manatee populations may have an impact on the marine mammals’ survival long term. Even though the population is growing, the animal is still considered endangered.
Researchers used skin samples collected from the tails of 362 manatees to determine genetic maps. Results revealed a moderate level of inbreeding within the Gulf Coast study population.
The impact of a lower genetic variation means, in the case of manatees, they may be less able to overcome environmental threats which promote disease or encourage increased inbreeding due to a limited number of breeding-age partners. In order to survive, the manatees will have to adapt.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are large, fully aquatic, primarily herbivorous marine mammals. They measure up to 10 feet long, weigh as much as 1,200 pounds, and have paddle-like flippers and tail. Females tend to be larger and heavier than the males. Manatees typically breed once every two years. Gestation lasts about 12 months. They don’t have natural enemies and can live as long as 60 years.
These aquatic animals have short snouts, widely spaced eyes, and no incisors or canines. Manatees have sets of cheek teeth which are replaced throughout their lifespan; old ones are ejected as new ones grow in.
They have a large, flexible, prehensile upper lip used to gather food and eat. This specialized upper lip is also used for social interaction and communication. Manatees are the only animal known to have a vascularized cornea.
Prior to this study, the US Fish and Wildlife Service considered reclassifying the statue of manatees from endangered to threatened on the conservation status scale. The change in rating is currently under debate.
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