A molecular DNA study was recently conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey to compare the genetics of Belize’s Antillean manatees to Florida manatees. Results have confirmed that the two are separate subspecies, which is genetic evidence that the Florida and Belize populations have not mixed. Since manatees are capable or migrating long distances, the question did exist as to whether or not the Florida manatees and the Belize Antillean manatees had been interbreeding. Through ongoing studies of the genetic relationships of all the Caribbean manatee population, scientists can better understand how to help the manatee maintain healthy and stable populations.
According to the article in ScienceDaily , Belize is home to the largest breeding population of the Antillean manatees. Biologists have long thought these manatees had the potential to repopulate other areas in Central America where populations of this endangered species have diminished.
The new DNA research has shown that the Antillean population in Belize has a genetic diversity lower than “some of the examples of critically low diversity,” according to head researcher, Margaret Hunter, Ph.D. To survive and grow in numbers, endangered species need genetic diversity. Without this diversity the population is more vulnerable to anything that can threaten their existence – disease, habitat destruction, hurricanes.
An interesting find was that there is genetic diversity amongst manatee populations in various locations in Belize, which means that they don’t naturally affect each other’s population or genetics. According to the study, “to sustain the diverse gene pool these populations offer, managers will need to consider methods of enabling natural migration and mixing to take place between the populations.” To do this successfully requires corridors of sustainable habitat with little human impact rather than just protected bays and small coastal areas.
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