Kaylie Anne Costa, University of Miami

The problem: Do you hate the cold? Well manatees can’t stand it either! Every year Florida manatees (e.g., West Indian Manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris) migrate to warmer waters during the winter months. In the past, they have used locations such as springs, layers of warm water created by salinity anomalies, and even the effluents from coastal power plants to stay warm. Unfortunately, new developments and recreational activities are taking over the natural warm water sources and most of the power plants are shutting down, so manatees have no haven for warm water.


Manatees utilize the warm effluent water of a coastal power plant in Riviera Beach, Florida (Source)

When water temperatures fall below 20 °C (68°F), Florida manatees become susceptible to cold stress syndrome (CSS), which is a breakdown of normal biological and immunological processes that often leads to death (Bossart 2001). Manatees experiencing CSS have characteristic lesions and other symptoms like emaciation, lethargy, fat atrophyand loss, epidermal hyperplasia, pneumonia, and myocardial degeneration (Bossart, 2001; Bossart et al., 2003). CSS plays a major role in major manatee die off events and the number of cases continues to increase as manatees lose more and more warm water refuges to development and recreation. I will be expanding the current scientific knowledge of CSS by analyzing the lipids (aka fats) and metabolites, which are the products remaining after biological processes such as digestion, respiration, maintaining homeostasis, etc. in manatee plasma samples using mass spectrometry in hopes of learning more about metabolism for therapeutic applications.

Protecting Florida manatees is important for so many reasons. First off, the US Endangered Species act listed the Florida manatee as endangered in 2001, but recently reduced their status to only threatened in 2017 (Public Affairs Office, 2018). Without intervention, this species could easily return to its endangered status. Secondly, marine mammals are great sentinels to model how environmental changes will impact human health due to their physiological similarities, long life spans, and thick blubber’s ability to store large amounts of contaminants (Bossart, 2011). Thirdly, manatees help control the growth of sea grass beds. The presence of healthy sea grass beds allows the ecosystems around them to thrive. Lastly, manatees support economies through ecotourism. This research is necessary to protect Florida manatees from this understudied condition.

A huge thank you to my mentor Dr. John Bowden and co-mentor Dr. Mike Napolitano as well as everyone at NIST for all of their help and guidance. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation for funding and the Fort Johnson REU program for making this research possible (NSF DBI-1757899).


Public Affairs Office. (2018, February 7). Florida Manatee -Issues and Information. Retrieved June 17, 2018, from

Bossart, G. (2001) Manatees. In: L. Dierauf & F. Gulland (eds.) Marine Mammal Medicine, pp. 939–960. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Bossart, G. D., Meisner, R. A., Rommel, S. A., Ghim, S. J., & Jenson, A. B. (2003). Pathological features of the Florida manatee cold stress syndrome. Aquatic Mammals, 29(1), 9–17.

Bossart, G. D. (2011). Marine mammals as sentinel species for oceans and human health. Veterinary Pathology, 48(3), 676–690.