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Héctor Guzmán, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found a good use for a retired Red Devil bus. He converted it into a floating research vessel for tracking manatees.
Panama City’s old style buses, often painted with garish pop art and nicknamed Red Devils because of the reputation of their drivers for reckless driving, have now been replaced by modern vehicles
Héctor Guzmán’s Red Devil now gently putters along the Sixaola River on the Caribbean side border between Panama and Costa Rica with a cargo of equipment including a dual-frequency side scan sonar and hydrophone arrays, food and tents.
With 10-foot-long adults weighing some 1,000 pounds, the laid-back marine mammals aren’t hard to spot in places like Florida’s Crystal River. The murky Sixaola is another story. Héctor’s team counts manatees with acoustics both passive (hearing them) and active (using a dual frequency sonar), and telemetry or tagged individuals. “This is a huge challenge for us,” says Héctor, who has tracked humpback whales in the Pacific and monitors corals around Panama. “This is the first time in my life I´m working underwater with something I don´t see.”
Counting the manatee population on the Caribbean coast around the Panama-Costa Rica border is part of a bi-national project to take stock of the area’s biodiversity. While large areas of the Sixaola watershed are protected, deforestation, tourism, hunting and agrochemicals threaten the area. The project, funded by the Interamerican Development Bank and the United Nations Global Environment Facility, aims to create more robust conservation schemes for the area.
Héctor says: “The project is trying to work not only in the parks but in the whole area of influence. That includes an evaluation of sources of pollution, land use, and a component for biodiversity.”
Manatees are among the Sixaola’s iconic large fauna, which includes jaguars, and leatherback turtles. Anywhere between 20 and 150 manatees are said to live in the area. Hector’s work over the rest of 2013, in collaboration with his colleague from Universidad de Costa Rica, Mario Rivera, will not only zero in on a more precise population estimate but also reveal their areas of preference for feeding and mating. Hector’s team will also make conservation recommendations. “The overall goal is to protect them, of course.”
Manatees were certainly much more plentiful in Sixaola in days gone by. Héctor believes pollution is the biggest current threat but they have long been hunted. Part of his research includes a bit of historical ecology. One family (now-retired) with three generations of manatee hunters has pointed him in the direction of manatee boneyards. Samples will contribute to the genetic analysis he will run on living animals. Unfortunately, some middens have already been overrun by development. “Even if I get just a few samples, that will be great,” he says.