Image: Florida manatee
Marc Serota  /  Reuters file
A woman pets an endangered manatee while swimming in the Crystal River in Homosassa, Fla., on Feb. 9.
updated 2/15/2006 4:54:31 PM ET 2006-02-15T21:54:31

Manatee deaths jumped by a third in January compared with the same month last year, but exactly what killed half the animals remains unknown, state wildlife officials said.

Last month, 48 of the endangered animals are known to have died statewide, 12 more than in January 2005.

Half of the deaths were listed as cause unknown because the manatees’ bodies were decomposed when they were retrieved, said Ken Arrison, a biologist with the state’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab in St. Petersburg. Officials are waiting on lab test to determine if red tide, a toxic algae bloom, was involved.

Six of the manatees died due to cold stress, a cause that surprised wildlife officials because January’s weather was mild, Arrison said. Others died from watercraft injuries and natural causes.

The winter is a critical time for manatees because, when water temperature drops below 68 degrees, the animals head for warmer canals, rivers and bays, often puts them in close proximity to boats.

Last year, 396 manatee deaths were reported. The highest toll was recorded in 1996, when 415 died.

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