Tuesday, July 27, 2010

West African Manatee, Species of the Day

As part of the Year of Biodiversity, the IUCN Red List has been celebrating by posting a Species of the Day to bring attention to plants and animals around the world. On July 27 it was the West African Manatee's turn! You can see the pdf by clicking here. To see other species, please scroll down to the link on the right side of this blog, which updates each new species daily through the end of 2010.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lectures at the Columbus Zoo

West African manatees in Ohio? Well no, but the Columbus Zoo does have one of the few Florida manatee exhibits outside of Florida, and also has supported my manatee research in Africa for the past 4 years. They invited me up to Ohio to give a couple talks about my work, so this past week I spoke to their Conservation Committee, as well as a group of zookeepers and docents. It was really fun to be able to share my work with them face to face.

I also got a tour of most of the zoo, including the manatee exhibit of course! This is the entrance of Manatee Coast. I loved the way it makes you feel as if you're on the edge of a mangrove forest. The building has a retractable roof, so it's open air in summer. And the tank glass allows you to see both above and below the water... an eye to eye view of the manatees. There may be a need for a manatee rehabilitation center in Africa someday, so the Columbus exhibit gave me lots of inspiration.
This is a view across the manatee tank. The public is on the right and those are real mangrove trees on the left!
In this view a manatee named Stubby (because she's unfortunately missing most of her tail fluke) is watching the visitors. Columbus currently has 6 manatees... all were rescued due to injuries. There are 4 juveniles who were rescued in Florida with cold stress symptoms (similar to frost bite in humans) during the unusually cold winter last year. They will go back to Florida to be released back to the wild once they're fully recovered.
In the wild, manatees eat aquatic plants such as seagrass on the bottom of bays and rivers as well as plants that grow along the edge of waterways. So captive manatees are fed both at the surface and from bottom feeder units to simulate their natural environment. The manatee exhibit includes a display that discusses manatee telemetry (tracking) research and shows a real tag and belt. I hope to create similar displays in several African museums.
I'd like to extend my huge thanks to Becky Rose, Field Conservation Coordinator (on right) and Carrie Pratt, head curator of Columbus Zoo's manatee exhibit (on left), who organized a fantastic visit for me. Thanks so much to everyone at the zoo for all your enthusiasm and hospitality!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Informational Panels

Thanks to funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and terrific design work by Aimee Sanders of Green Butterfly Designs, we have created three different 60cm x 90cm manatee educational panels in French for natural history museums in West African countries. The first ones were created in Gabon, but they are not specific to any country and therefore can be used in any Francophone country that has manatees.

The first panel gives general information about all the sirenians (manatees and their cousins the dugongs) around the world:
The second one discusses information specific to West African manatees, such as the types of habitat they live in, their physical characteristics, laws that protect them, and threats.
The third panel focuses on West African manatee research (behavioral, physiology and habitat studies, genetics, etc.), protection measures and ways that the public can contribute to their conservation.
One set of panels will be installed at the ecomusee in Sette Cama, Gabon, which also displays a manatee skeleton. Sette Cama attracts several thousand tourists a year who come for wildlife viewing and sport fishing.
The ecomusee sits on a narrow peninsula between N'dogo Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean.

A second set of panels created in Gabon will hopefully soon be installed in an ecomousee in a different part of the country. I hope to produce more of these for other African countries soon!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Field Equipment Donation

Tomas and I would like to thank Save the Manatee Club for an amazing donation of a trolling motor, GPS and 4 life jackets to be used for manatee surveys at newly created Tocc Tocc Reserve in northern Senegal, the first reserve created specifically for the West African Manatee. Tomas has worked very hard over the past few years with the local community and the government of Senegal to get the reserve created. The area is a small lagoon on the western side of Lac de Guiers, a huge lake that provides drinking water for the capital city of Dakar and for local agriculture. Tomas saw his first West African manatees there several years ago, and realized that this quiet section of the lake where manatees are now often observed would be a great place to establish a sanctuary, and hopefully someday an education center. The reserve is also important habitat for the relatively rare Adanson's Mud Turtle (Pelusios adansoni) and many species of waterbirds and fish.

Last summer a university student worked at the reserve conducting manatee surveys (he had 7 sightings) and interviewing members of the local community about manatees. This equipment is vital for further surveys and will provide greater safety and data accuracy. We hope to establish a database of year round sightings, organize a clean up of derelict fishing nets and hopefully tag manatees here to learn more about their habitat use patterns in the lake and the adjacent Senegal River. We are incredibly honored that Save the Manatee Club supports this work!

A view of Tocc Tocc Reserve, water lily paradise. So far I've documented 10 species of known manatee food plants there.
In the Genetics Lab

While I've been silent on my blog I've been busy working in a genetics laboratory in Gainesville, Florida. It's been really exciting to get going on the analysis of the samples I've collected in Africa over the past 4 years! Although I'm more of an outdoor person, and working with delicate glassware and pipetting minuscule quantities into test tubes is not my forte, I'm really enjoying it and learning alot. It will be very interesting to see what can be learned about West African manatees in different countries and regions across their huge range. Hopefully we'll be able to tell how closely populations are related (or not), which then can be used by biologists and managers to address conservation issues.
This is the first time I've done any genetics since the 1980's, so I spent the first week getting up to speed and learning the different techniques I need to analyze manatee tissue and bone samples. I'm very lucky to be working with two manatee genetics experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, Maggie and Bob. Two other women who work in the lab, Gaia and Teresa, have been wonderful, patient teachers as well!
Happy faces in the lab: Teresa, Maggie and Gaia
The lab equipment seemed daunting at first (mostly because it is all very expensive and delicate!) but my comfort level has greatly improved in the last few weeks.
So to start, we take a small piece of manatee tissue that has been collected and preserved in the field. Using a very sterile procedure (because other DNA, including our own, can easily contaminate the sample) a piece about the size of a pea is cut and put in a vial with a chemical that breaks down the proteins and dissolves the tissue into individual cells.
The sample is gently rocked in a warm bath overnight to allow the chemical to break up the tissue... the warm bath part sounded good to me!
And then we add a series of chemicals to isolate the DNA. All of this involves using a pipette to mix extremely tiny amounts (measured in micro liters) into vials, centrifuge (spin) it and then remove a tiny layer of liquid off the top of the vial using a pipette. It definitely takes practice and a steady hand! Some of the chemicals we use are not friendly, so we have to work with our arms inside a fume hood (which has a fan to keep toxic chemicals from bothering us or getting into the lab). It's a bit awkward until you get used to it.
Once that's done, we add primers (specific, short DNA segments) to the DNA and it is amplified millions of times in a heating and cooling process (in a special machine) known as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). The entire process takes about 12 hours from start to finish, there's lots of room for errors and at the end we hope there's some DNA in our vials! Definitely not as easy as it looks on CSI. To test the sample to see if we got DNA, we use an instrument called a nanophotometer (photo below), which shoots a beam of light through a tiny droplet of the sample and gives a general indication of whether or not DNA is present, although I've learned that other contaminants such as proteins can give a false reading. For all the samples that get good readings, we then do a purification procedure (more pipetting and vials!) to maximize the DNA.
Along the way we transfer the sample into many different vials, all of which need to be labelled with the correct ID number. It's alot like cooking, you follow the recipe but because of the quality of the ingredients, things don't always turn out the same way. Much of the manatee tissue I have is from carcasses that were badly decomposed or hunters who cooked manatee meat, all of which degrades the DNA. So I've had a few samples fail, but most are yielding something, and Maggie is helping me tweak the techniques to have the best possibility of getting DNA out of difficult samples.
After each procedure we run an electrophoresis gel which indicates if DNA is present (the orange bands). We mix gelatin up and pour it into a mold, the samples are inserted into tiny wells in the gel, an electric current passes through it and we can see the DNA bands in reference to a ladder (large group of orange bands at the top of the photo). The brightness of the orange band is an indicator of the quantity of DNA in the sample, so a fainter band has less DNA than a brighter one. We then photograph each gel to keep a record the results. Samples that have DNA are sequenced at the University of Florida to tell us what the DNA strand contains. They also have genotyping machines... here Bob is showing me one as he starts running a set of samples.
So we'll see what results I get! I have over 200 samples from 10 countries so far, and this is just the beginning... I've only run the first 10 samples so I have a long way to go!