TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA/WBBH) — Florida’s beloved manatees are dying off in record numbers this year, and an invasive species could put them more at risk during winter.
WBBH reports that the shallow freshwaters where manatees go to find warmth during the winter has become infested with armored catfish, otherwise known as Plecostomus or “Pleco.”
Pleco can live in nearly any type of slow-moving body of water and are often found along the shoreline.
“Florida is a great environment for some of these species, so that’s why we have so many invasives in the area,” fisherman Nick Pisculli told WBBH. “Ponds, retention ponds, small lakes, they are pretty plentiful.”
Plecos will only eat algae. Video shows dozens of them clinging to the sea cows back and feeding off the algae on their skin. This has scientists like Dr. Missy Gibbs, a biology professor at Stetson University, concerned.
“Catfish were just all over the manatees, we wondering what kind of behavioral changes that would induce, was it bothering them? We found it was a statistically significant effect, but the catfish were absolutely changing the behavior of the manatees,” Gibbs told WBBH.
According to Gibbs, manatees will burn more calories than normal trying to shake off the catfish, and this could lead to their decline.
She said they will have to leave their habitats earlier to avoid the fish “and they’ll get cold, which is very dangerous for them.”