Two researchers at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium have been awarded a $10,000 grant to study the science of poop.

Associate Scientist Elizabeth Burgess, Ph.D., and Senior Scientist Rosalind Rolland, D.V.M., were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Animal Welfare Institute to develop a noninvasive way to monitor threats to the health of Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris). Their plan: measure thyroid hormone (triiodothyronine, T3) found in the manatees’ poop.


Manatee breaches surfaces.
A Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) surfaces in a lagoon. Photo courtesy: Bruce J. Robinson.

As the researchers from the Anderson Cabot Center’s Marine Stress Lab know from their pioneering work on North Atlantic right whales, poop can be an invaluable source of information for marine mammals.

Using a methodology Rolland created to measure stress hormones in the fecal matter of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, the team will use the funds to develop noninvasive biomarkers to better understand how Florida manatees respond to stressful events, such as unusual deaths and cold stress.

Like many coastal species living near humans, Florida manatees are vulnerable to the impacts humans have on the environment. In 2010, 280 manatees died of cold stress syndrome during a prolonged cold snap. Since 2012, more than 150 manatees have died in “unusual mortality events” in Florida’s polluted Indian River Lagoon. Researchers suspect those manatees died of chronic nutritional stress, but it is often hard to determine cause of death.

“The great thing about fecal hormones is that it’s a signature from days prior to death,” said Burgess. “These biomarkers accumulate in the feces as it transits through the gut. In the case of manatees, hormones could be there from six to seven days. We can find out what’s happening to the manatee before its death.”

Mass die-offs are a serious indicator of ocean health, so understanding how and why manatees die or thrive is critically important.


Three Florida manatees huddle together in a lagoon.
Three Florida manatees huddle together in a lagoon. Photo courtesy: Bruce J. Robinson.

The pair is partnering with manatee biologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who have been collecting poop samples from manatees for years.

“They have quite a large database,” said Burgess. The fecal samples are primarily in three groups: healthy manatees, cold-stressed manatees, and manatees from unusual mortality events in Florida’s polluted Indian River Lagoon.

“We think it’s going to give a lot of information based on what we’re doing at the Aquarium with marine wildlife and fecal hormones already,” said Burgess.

The Florida manatees will be the seventh fecal matter subjects at the Aquarium. They join the ranks of a poop hormone database including five large whale species—right, bowhead, humpback, sperm, and beaked whales—and the Northern fur seal.

“Fecal monitoring is a really good way to keep up with how the population is doing and understand stresses before they become mortalities or strandings,” said Burgess.

The Animal Welfare Institute’s Christine Stevens Wildlife Awards fund “innovative strategies for humane, nonlethal wildlife conflict management and studying wildlife.” The grant awarded to the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life researchers was one of six awarded this year.

Banner image: An endangered Florida manatee rests in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo courtesy: Keith Ramos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.