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By Tara Malinowski. October 2, 2012.

A long-term study conducted by Mason researchers may be a benchmark in determining health threats to marine mammals.

A West Indian Manatee. Photo from U.S. Geological Fact Sheet 010-99, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

More than 10 years of research in Belize was conducted studying the behavioral ecology, life history and health of manatees, large marine mammals sometimes called sea cows, in an area relatively undisturbed by humankind.

“Manatees are the proverbial ‘canaries in the mineshaft,’ as they serve as indicators of their environment and may reflect the overall health of marine ecosystems,” says Alonso Aguirre, executive director of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation and co-author of a paper on this research published recently in PLoS One journal in collaboration with scientists of University of California-Davis, U.S. Geological Survey and Sea to Shore Alliance.

Aguirre calls them a “sentinel species,” which means they are early warning indicators of environmental change. Because they may be highly susceptible or highly resistant to different environmental stressors, manatees can indicate a severe environmental change before other species or humans are affected.

“Studying them may help us predict a change that has the potential to be devastating to an ecosystem or a habitat if left unaddressed,” Aguirre says.  Read more