An Introduction to the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory

In this small space, FWC-FWRI biologists perform cutting-edge science that receives national and even international recognition.

Photographing the carcass

The story of the exploding manatee is the stuff of legend at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). Like all worthwhile stories, it becomes more vivid with each telling. Stripped of the embellishments of good fiction, the story is simple enough. While a British National Geographic group filmed a necropsy for part of a manatee documentary, a biologist cut into a badly decomposed manatee. At that moment, the heart, fueled by the volume of pent up gasses common to the decomposition process, literally burst out of the carcass. As disturbing as this might seem to some, it is simply illustrative of the environment at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory (MMPL) in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Staff members at the MMPL perform necropsies (non-human autopsies) on marine animals. While they primarily necropsy manatee carcasses, MMPL biologists have also necropsied many other large marine species, including sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, pygmy sperm whales, large whales (sperm whales, finback whales, humpback whales), and sturgeon. MMPL biologists try to learn as much as possible from each animal they examine. The lessons learned in the lab often help scientists all over the world to understand more about a particular species, as well as more general marine animal health issues. Under the best of circumstances, it is a difficult job that requires exceptional teamwork, precision, scientific expertise, and a strong stomach. MMPL scientists, however, seldom have the luxury of the best of circumstances.

Instead, they work in a small building, where the necropsy room is, understandably, the largest space. Although the cramped quarters house two actual offices, most of the scientists' desks are tucked into any available space. Boxes, papers, and books are everywhere: on shelves, on desks, neatly stacked on the floor. Computers and video equipment vie with pieces of the bone collection for precious space. There are bones from manatees, whales, and dolphins occupying shelves and tables throughout the building. There are even more exotic looking specimens: a model skull of a long extinct saber-toothed cat that once prowled Florida and an entire monkfish skeleton that dangles as though swimming in space, suspended from an office ceiling by nearly invisible strings.

The MMPL regularly receives visitors of all kinds. For queasy guests, a window in the office space allows viewing of necropsies from a less fragrant distance. However, visitors often observe from within the necropsy room, where the view is better and the scientists graciously answer questions and point out interesting features of individual animals. Even in crises, it is not unusual to see numerous visitors at the MMPL. In a situation such as a red tide event, many marine animals, including manatees, can die. Under these circumstances, biologists have performed as many as eight necropsies in a day. Each necropsy averages two hours. That means the scientists at the MMPL can put in 16-hour days for as many days or weeks as it takes a crisis to resolve. In the midst of all this, the MMPL staff members continue their roles as educators by taking time to work with inquiring visitors.

In this outwardly chaotic small space, FWC-FWRI biologists perform cutting-edge science that receives national and even international recognition. Their teamwork is impressive. As each carcass is opened, the biologists assume positions around the animal and begin dissecting and collecting an array of samples. They pause only to call out weights and measurements for the researcher recording information on the computer, to help a teammate climb up on the table to better photograph the carcass, or to point out something interesting to visitors. There are no egos in the necropsy room. Each biologist works with the group to learn as much as possible from the animal on the table.

This spirit of cooperation extends to collaborative efforts with other scientists and organizations. In addition to the samples routinely collected for histology (microscopic examination of tissues) at the MMPL, biologists gather items, such as barnacle and skin samples, requested by other researchers from all over the world. Mote Marine Laboratory and the University of Florida are among the institutions with which the MMPL collaborates. Countless students, academic advisors, visiting scientists, media representatives, and conference attendees have learned from the MMPL scientists. The efforts of the special team at the MMPL help the FWC and FWRI better understand what is required to protect, conserve, and manage manatees and other endangered and threatened species. Through the work of these and other gifted researchers, FWC-FWRI hopes to ensure that manatees continue to inhabit Florida's waters for many years to come.

Photo Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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