A lab in Florida acts as a real-life CSI show ... for manatees

Martine de Wit leads a team of forensic pathologists that performs autopsies on the endangered creatures to determine their cause of death.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Marine detectives: Martine de Wit, a marine mammal biologist, has overseen more than 500 autopsies on manatees in the past two years.
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Martine de Wit, wearing a rubber apron and antiseptic coveralls, leans over the latest victim in a crime lab here in the shadow of a Florida overpass. The body, officially tagged case number MSW0821, was found face down in a lake in southwestern Florida two days earlier.

Ms. de Wit and her team of forensic pathologists will spend the next several hours wielding scalpels and an intimate knowledge of biology to try to solve several mysteries: What was the cause of death? Was foul play involved? If so, they'll relay the information on to authorities for possible criminal prosecution.

In this case, though, the body isn't that of some drug kingpin or the target of a mob hit in Miami. It's a manatee, one of the beloved sea cows that roam the waters off Florida's coast. If CBS wanted to add another series to its ever-expanding line of forensic crime dramas, it would have to go no further than this whitewashed lab in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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Call it "CSI: Manatee."

De Wit is the methodical leader of a young group of dedicated scientists – each one part forensic analyst, part sleuth. She is a combination of Horatio Caine and Alexx Woods of "CSI: Miami," minus the carrot-topped head or the high heels.

In reality, de Wit may be the only official manatee detective in the nation. While other marine-mammal biologists work with the lumbering creatures around Florida, some at theme parks such as Sea World in Orlando, de Wit is the only one employed by the state dedicated solely to both live rescues and autopsies.

The work she and her team does is politically important. Protection of manatees remains an incendiary topic in Florida, with environmentalists always pushing for more restrictions and boaters and fishermen often fighting against them. Her work can be crucial in such disputes – in the public arena and the courts.

"We have to look at all of the evidence and determine how these manatees died," says de Wit. "It could be environmental, such as cold stress or red tide, the animal might have been stuck in a lock gate. But there are any number of human-related causes – a watercraft strike, ingestion of fishing gear, and so on."

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Little here looks quite like the sets in the Hollywood crime shows. No Hummers sit in the parking lot. No state-of-the-art computer banks whir in the lab on which you can solve almost anything at the click of a mouse.

The scene is more basic: A 22-foot boat sits in the yard with the words "Manatee Rescue" painted on it. Inside, the skeleton of one of the sea mammals hangs from the wall, giving the lab the feel of an exhibit room at the Smithsonian.

De Wit and her colleagues begin sifting through clues to determine the death of MSW0821. She finds a wound on the animal's head and grass in its mouth. This proves, she says, that it was still eating when it was struck by a boat and that death came instantly.

Usually, most animals that come into the laboratory have been dead for several days. That means decomposition has set in, making it more difficult to pinpoint the cause of death and recreate what happened. Yet de Wit thrives on solving such riddles. "To outsiders it looks like the most nasty job there is," she says. "It takes a really specific interest in pathology and manatee biology to do this work. You have to look beyond the dirtiness and the smell."

She has – many times. Even though she's only been on the job two years, she has examined more than 500 endangered sea creatures, each with its own tale to tell. On some days, they will conduct as many as four autopsies.

"There are times when we'll have to go and rescue an injured one and bring it back to the rehab facility," she says. "That's rewarding."

De Wit's path to working here amid all the microscopes and beakers was a bit circuitous. The Dutch-born scientist studied avian medicine and qualified as a veterinarian before working for several years with exotic animals in Utrecht, Holland. Then, four years ago, she moved to the US. She worked for two years with other threatened or endangered animals, such as Florida panthers and bald eagles, at a conservation center near Jacksonville before taking the position here at the Florida Marine Mammal Pathobiology lab.

She calls it a dream job. She remembers vividly the first time she ever saw a manatee, at a zoo in Holland, where she was captivated by its gentle movements and endearing features.

"I just got extremely lucky," she says of the job. "But around here it helps to have a good sense of humor. We work in a very small space, and we're on top of each other all day. Everyone has very sharp knives."

Occasionally, the evidence they uncover leads to criminal charges in cases that would make good CSI story lines. Last summer, for example, two fishermen in Hollywood, Fla., hooked a manatee in a canal. The men posted a video clip of their adventure on MySpace, which allowed detectives with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to identify them from the T-shirts they were wearing.

The fishermens' attorney argued that the duo did not intend to harm the animal and posted the video as a prank. But FWC officials didn't see the humor in a manatee struggling to swim away with a hook in its mouth and its body entwined in nylon fish line. A court sentenced one of the men to a month in jail and the other to two weeks.

"The manatee died because of what they did, and we built a case against them based on information we found here," says de Wit.

This wasn't a unique incident. Since the FWC began keeping records in 1974, state officials estimate that more than 150 manatees have died from human-related causes other than accidental strikes by boats, propellers, or other incidents. Some 6,500 manatees have died in all during that time.

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Marine biologist Katie Brill graduated early from college to start working at the lab six years ago. Her specialty is determining a manatee's age by counting the rings around its tiny ear bone, in a similar way to dating a tree.

"There's always something new, something else to figure out," says Ms. Brill.

She spends hours each day looking through a microscope, then posting her findings on a database detailing every manatee death in Florida over the past 30 years. Brandon Bassett, another researcher, posts information from each autopsy, including where the manatee was found and the cause of death.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups closely study the information. Last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service sought to downgrade the status of manatees from endangered to threatened.

Environmentalists, armed in part with information from the lab, lobbied against the change – successfully. "It means manatees will continue to remain eligible for the strongest possible protections," says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, an advocacy group. "That's one reason why the work they [de Wit and team] are doing is so important."

De Wit is clinically neutral on the enduring debate between environmentalists and fishing interests, which plays out over such things as speed limits for boats and the safe disposal of fishing line. "Our role is to give correct information to the people who determine the policy," she says.

De Wit heads back to her office to write up the autopsy report on MSW0821. Sadly, its death will go into the column marked "watercraft." "It can be upsetting, some days more than others," she says. "But you can't let it get to you."

If she ever does, she can always unwind by watching one of those TV crime shows. And, yes, she does watch them – just not obsessively so. "I'm just a regular person," she says.

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