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The Present Standing of the Florida Manatee, Trichechus Latirostris (Harlan) in the Indian River Waters

The American Naturalist


The last two generations have witnessed such a destruction of animal life in this country that it is appalling to look ahead and see what the future has in store for us. Our larger animals and birds are going with such rapidity, and the wilder parts of the country to which they have been driven are being cleared and settled so fast, that the end of many species still common in places, is already plainly in sight.

Man is, of course, the real cause, in almost every case of the extermination of a species, although often the end comes by some natural calamity, as, for example, the tragic end of the great Auk.

When a species has become, through the persecution of man, reduced to a mere remnant that persists either from the inaccessible nature of the country to which it has taken refuge, or from the wariness the few surviving individuals have developed, it takes but a small change in its surroundings to wipe it forever from the face of the earth.

The winter of 1894–1895 has been a most disastrous one and has shown us on how slight a change in temperature the life or death of a whole species depends. Two such winters in succession would in all probability exterminate the blue-bird, the snow-bird and many others that winter in the Carolinian Zone. These birds went into the winter in their full numbers and strength, and yet this summer they are so rare that I have not seen a single blue-bird in the Plymouth Co. Mass. country, where usually they are one of the common breeding birds. Think what a proportionate reduction in numbers must mean then to a species already on the verge of extinction.

The cold in Florida of the last winder was unprecedented and the mortality among the fish in the shallow water was such as I never thought to witness. The birds suffered very much, but as far as I could tell few died as far south as where I was, Oak Lodge on the East Peninsular opposite Micco. Here, at five o'clock, on the morning of February 12th, the thermometer registered 20°F, and on the next morning at the same hour, only 23°F. It was a strange experience to walk over the frozen sand and see every little puddle covered with ice, on a trail overhung by the sub-tropical vegetation of a Florida hammock with a north wind blowing in my face that chilled me to the bones. The cold of these two days and nights was intense.

On February 19th, Mr. Walter L. Gibson came across the river to tell me he had found two manatee that had been killed by the "freeze," and the next day I went over to take possession of them. They were both found where they had floated ashore to the bank of the Sebastian River, one about four and the other two miles from its confluence with the Indian River. I found to my great regret that both were too far gone to hope to save the skins and the only thing to be done was to save the skeletons which we began to macerate out at once. One was an old female of very large size, measuring from the end of the nose to the end of the tail 11 ft., 4 in. The other, a young male, measuring from the end of the nose to the end of the tail 6 ft., 4 in.1 Both skeletons are now in the collection of E. A. and O. Bangs, Boston, Mass.

These Manatee were two of the survivors of the herd of eight, which had, for the past year, been living in the St. Lucie and Sebastian Rivers and that part of the Indian River which is between these two. For two years the Manatee has been protected by a State Law and this herd had come together in consequence and probably consisted of most of the Manatee of this region that, freed from persecution, had collected into a herd as was their wont in old times when the rivers were theirs.

Mr. Gibson told me that often he has stood on the railroad bridge that spans the Sebastian, and seen this herd pass under him and counted them over and over again and knew every individual in it. After the first "freeze" of last winter, in December, three of the Manatee were found ashore, dead, in different places and no live ones were seen. Whether any of this herd pulled through both "freezes" is impossible to say but five out of the eight are accounted for and it seems likely that more died than were found as a great part of their range was not covered and their carcasses might easily have escaped detection even in places that were visited. It does not take long for a dead body to disappear in Florida and the Manatee as they lay half under water would soon have been disposed of, the crabs doing their business below the surface and the turkey buzzards above.

The Manatee is extremely sensitive to a change in the temperature of the water. this was noticed by Mr. Conklin to be the case with the one that was kept alive in the Zoological Park in New York and Mr. C.J. Maynard told me that he knew of three large Manatee that were killed in the "freeze" of 1886 and washed up near Palm Beach. The 1886 "freeze" was very mild compared with those of last winter. In 1886 the mangroves hardly suffered at all, while last winter, 1894 and 1895, nearly every tree along the whole stretch of the Indian River was killed to the ground.

In both "freezes" last winter the cold came without any warning and the change of temperature was so sudden that the only chance for the Manatee to escape certain death lay in their being able to reach deep water before they were overcome by the cold.

The region from the Sebastian to the St. Lucie has, for a number of years, been the only part of the Indian River where the Manatee were seen. Here, besides the herd of eight, now reduced to three at the very outside, there were some solitary scattering individuals, how many it is impossible to say, as the Manatee has become very shy, but it is safe to assume that the scattering ones fared no better than did the herd, and that the reduction in numbers from the cold of last winter was very great.

There are still, however, a few Manatee alive in the Sebastian River. In a letter I lately received from Mr. Gibson he told me that in the end of March he surprised several Manatee lying close together on a mud flat, high up the Sebastian River. As soon as they heard him they made a rush for deep water, throwing the mud and water fifteen feet high in the violence of their flight.

I made many careful inquiries among the people who live along the river and would be in the way of knowing of the Manatee and its diminution of numbers of late years, but got surprisingly little information of any value except from Mr. Gibson, to whom I have so often referred, and Mr. Fritz Ulrich, a German of more than ordinary intelligence, who has spent the last fifteen years dreaming his life away among the birds and animals of the Indian River. They were all his friends. The panthers knew his voice and answered him from the wilderness, and the owls came from their hiding places and flew about him to his call and the little lizards fed from his hand. But it is all gone now and there only remains of the great life of the river a small terrified remnant, and its stead the railroad train hurries along the west bank and hideous towns and more hideous hotels an cottages have sprung up everywhere among the pines. It is now eight years since Mr. Ulrich saw a living Manatee, but when he first came to the river fifteen years ago they were still common and he often saw them from the door of his little house at The Narrows passing up and down the river and occasionally he saw them at play when they would roll up, one behind the other, like the coils of a great sea serpent.

The spring and summer of 1894 were so dry that the salt water went nearly to the head of the fresh water streams and killed out the "Manatee grass,"2 of which the Manatee are especially fond and the poor brutes had to fall back on the leaves of the mangroves, a food not much to their liking which they reach by laboriously dragging their huge bodies half out of water. Mr. Gibson spent a great part of that summer up the Sebastian where he was catching paraquets, and on several occasions he saw the herd of eight feeding in this manner.

The Manatee is an animal of the highest economic value and one that the Indian River, with its fresh water tributaries, seems able to support in large numbers and it would be more than mere sentiment to regret its disappearance should it become a thing of the past. But there is still a chance for it. There are some Manatee alive now in the Sebastian River and these have passed through the cold of a winter such as no living man in Florida has known before; they are protected by law, and the netting3 has been stopped; and in spite of the small annual increase, the female bringing forth but one calf a year, it should slowly come up again to something like its old numbers.

1The Florida Manatee grows but little larger than this female. The two largest I ever heard of were caught in the St. Lucie River, by Mr. August Park of Sebastian, Florida. One in August, 1880, that measured 13 ft.,7 in., long and one in June of the same year, that measured 12 ft. long and estimated at two thousand pounds in weight.
2I regret that I am unable to give a more definite name to this plant, never having seen it myself but it was described to me as a tender ribbon-like grass, the blades of which are about half an inch wide and four or five feet long. it grows with the ends of the blades and the blossoms resting on the water, and is found only in a few of the fresh water streams of southeast Florida.
3For a full account of this most successful method of destroying the Manatee, see and article in Forest and Stream, XIII, 1800, pp. 1005, 1006 by Mr. J. Francis Le Baron.

Excerpt from: Bangs, Outram. "The Present Standing of the Florida Manatee, Trichechus Latirostris (Harlan) in the Indian River Waters."
The American Naturalist, Sept. 1895, Volume XXIX, Issue 345, pp. 783–787


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