By Jessica Creagan
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY -- One of the region's most widely recognized mammals has had a difficult year and experts are still unsure of the cause.
Since July 2012, there have been 116 manatee deaths reported with an unknown cause of death. While none have been reported in Indian River County, 113 manatee carcasses have been reported in adjoining Brevard County, and three have been reported in Volusia County, said staff from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Kevin Baxter, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said it is likely that the animal corpses could travel from county line to county line, and the problem facing the manatees was greater than just the Brevard and Volusia counties.
In the past, large numbers of manatee deaths have been attributed to cold weather, but that has not been the cause in these deaths, Mr. Baxter said.
The investigations of these deaths have not been conclusive, but one theory is that the diets of manatees could be the cause, he said.
On the outside, the manatees look healthy, but they die suddenly, Mr. Baxter said.
"We suspect it could be related to a dietary change based on sea grass availability having been reduced in parts of the (Indian River) lagoon and algae-blooms," Mr. Baxter said.
Manatees feed on the sea grasses that grow on the bottom of the lagoon floor, but sea grass beds have been dwindling in number in the past couple of year, he said.
It is possible that the manatees are trying different food sources, other plants, and seaweed, he said.
Tests are still being taken on the gastro-intestinal tracts of manatee to identify the toxins causing the deaths.
To report a dead or distressed manatee, call (888) 404-3922. For more information about manatees in Florida, visit www.myfwc.com/manatee.