Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hands On: The Manatee Scientists: Saving Vulnerable Species by Peter Lourie

Today is windless, sunny, cold, and perfect.

Why conduct a manatee survey during a cold snap? During the cold periods in south Florida, manatees congregate and find refuge either in the warm 72 degree water of natural springs or in the warm water discharges from big power plants up and down both coasts.

Seeing manatees from a plane is a remarkable experience, John Reynolds says. "You're only seven hundred feet above the water, and you can see them rise to breathe and interact with one another. You see the moms and the calves beside them, many with boat scars on their backs."

Protecting the endangered and threatened species of this planet can be as exciting as flying low, one wing straight down, over Florida's waterways to prepare a yearly census of Florida's beloved manatees,. It can also be as saddening as finding the bones of a Amazonian manatee, raised from a bottle-fed calf only to find she has failed to survive when released in an ogapo, a dark-water tributary of the Amazon, as did Brazilian naturalist Fernando Rosas in his difficult work to support the shy river manatees of South America.

Or perhaps the most exciting biological find could take place on dry land, deep in the Congo's forests, behind the wooden hut of one of the river's most seasoned manatee hunters. Hoping to buy the recently deceased hunter's well-worn harpoons to discourage his sons from taking up his trade, marine field scientist Lucy Keith stumbles upon a treasure trove of biological information in the extensive piles of manatee bones behind the hunter's home, invaluable sources of life cycle and genetic information on the rarely seen and little known African manatee.

It's all in a day's work for a practicing field scientist, as documented in the richly illustrated The Manatee Scientists (SITF): Saving Vulnerable Species (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), the latest in the extensive and noted Scientists in the Field series. Author Peter Lourie doesn't hesitate to take the reader "into the weeds" as he follows his working scientists about their daily work, glamorous and not so glamorous--work which involves not only caring for and releasing injured or abandoned calves, but also capturing healthy specimens to take blood samples, scooping feces from cloudy streams deep in the rain forest, or collecting found remains of deceased animals to learn as much as possible about this reclusive plant-eating water mammal. Knowledge about the life cycle, normal physiology, reproduction, and threats to existence facing these animals is vital to their preservation. As a large (up to 3600 pounds) marine mammal with no means of self defense and a need to eat huge quantities of plant matter daily, this distant cousin of the elephant and aardvark is but one of nature's large water mammals that scientists worldwide are following to reinforce the work of conservationists.

Author Lourie portrays each of these scientists in their regions of the three major Atlantic varieties of the manatee, and backs up his text with lavish color photos of every stage of their work, followed by an appendix with author's notes, an extensive glossary, and a full index to assist in middle school and high school reports.

Just a few of the intriguing titles in this fascinating series are Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature's Mysteries from Perilous Places (Scientists in the Field Series) (see my review here), Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy, and Black Holes (Scientists in the Field Series), Diving to a Deep-Sea Volcano (Scientists in the Field Series), and Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species (Scientists in the Field Series).

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