Researchers develop technique to test manatees for heart disease

Jun 19, 2013
Researchers develop technique to test manatees for heart disease
Manatee Sonogram: Dr. Trevor Gerlach, a UF aquatic animal health intern, left, watches the results of a cardiac ultrasound (echocardiogram) on a computer monitor while UF cardiology resident Dr. Ivan Sosa performs an echocardiogram on a sub-adult manatee at Lowry Park Zoo. Credit: Lowry Park Zoo

(Phys.org) —Leisurely swims in warm, tropical waters fueled by the gaze of admiring fans and a healthy vegetarian diet. The life of a manatee hardly seems likely to prompt concerns about heart disease. But researchers at the University of Florida say the lumbering, loveable sea cow's ticker deserves a closer look because of the animal's endangered status.

That's why they've developed a technique to test for in endangered manatees, both in the wild and in captivity. The new technique will enhance knowledge of how the manatee heart functions.

The UF researchers are using the technique to gather data they hope to share with wildlife and zoo veterinarians to ultimately save more manatee lives. Collaborating with scientists from Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and the 's pathology laboratory in St. Petersburg, they are using echocardiography on the large creatures, making use of a specially designed table built to hold animals weighing up to 2,000 pounds.

"There are a lot of gaps in our knowledge base on basic anatomy and physiology of manatees due to the obvious limitations of working with a 1,000- to 1,500-pound animal that spends its entire life in the water," said Trevor Gerlach, an intern in UF's aquatic animal health program and lead author on a paper that documents the first phase of the researchers' study in the June issue of the Journal of Zoo and . "Due to their current endangered status, it is important that we understand the animal in its entirety so that we can better tailor conservation efforts for the species."

The researchers' long-term goal is to provide practitioners at rehabilitation facilities and those working in the field with data from clinically healthy animals. Such animals could be compared to animals of concern to determine if cardiac disease is present.

To allow for effective testing, the researchers first developed a table built to hold the weight of 2,000-pound animals that were part of a large-scale manatee health assessment conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in Crystal River. Fourteen healthy, wild and captive Florida manatees underwent echocardiography, administered using the table technique, between fall 2011 and winter 2012. The group included eight females and six males of various ages.

"We were able to clearly visualize all valves and chambers," Gerlach said, adding that other key indicators of heart function also were successfully obtained. Some abnormalities in the study animals also were documented.

"Our results indicate that echocardiography in the Florida manatee is possible, which has both clinical and research implications in larger epidemiologic studies evaluating diseases of the cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular systems," Gerlach said.

Although extensive research has been conducted on comparative anatomy, physiology and ecology of sea cows, very few studies have evaluated the manatee heart. Basic cardiac morphology and a test called an electrocardiogram have been examined, but the diagnostic value is limited to electrical imbalances in the heart, the researchers said.

"Echocardiography is the gold standard for diagnosing valve diseases and structural abnormalities, and provides other information as well," Gerlach said.

Researchers are finishing up the second phase of the study, which entails collecting more data from echocardiographs to establish normal testing parameters for manatees of various ages.

"Once we establish the parameters, we can begin larger epidemiological studies on the prevalence of heart disease in the wild population, which is one of our long-term goals," Gerlach said.

Bob Bonde, a manatee researcher with the USGS, praised the new technique.

"Out-of-water, real-time assessment of these large aquatic mammals will benefit our evaluation of manatee health-related indices in the wild population," "Knowledge of reproductive fitness and nutritional condition is paramount to our fully understanding their recovery."

Explore further: The influence of the Isthmus of Panama in the evolution of freshwater shrimps in America

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Government to remap manatee habitat

Sep 30, 2009

It has been more than 30 years since federal wildlife managers formally mapped the places where endangered manatee live in Florida. On Tuesday, they acknowledged it's probably time for an update.

Manatees paddle to warm water to escape Fla. chill

Dec 30, 2010

(AP) -- People aren't the only ones in Florida who don't like cold weather. Manatees - those giant aquatic mammals with the flat, paddle-shaped tails - are swimming out of the chilly Gulf of Mexico waters ...

A microquasar makes a giant Manatee Nebula

Jan 19, 2013

(Phys.org)—A new view of a 20,000-year old supernova remnant demonstrates the upgraded imaging power of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and provides more clues ...

Recommended for you

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

13 hours ago

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

Amazonian shrimps: An underwater world still unknown

14 hours ago

A study reveals how little we know about the Amazonian diversity. Aiming to resolve a scientific debate about the validity of two species of freshwater shrimp described in the first half of the last century, ...

Factors that drive sexual traits

15 hours ago

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.