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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.