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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 Richard LuscombeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2008

Marine detectives: Martine de Wit, a marine mammal biologist, has overseen more than 500 autopsies on manatees in the past two years.

Richard Luscombe

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St. Petersburg, FlA.

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.

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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.

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."