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Manatee dies of injuries from sexual encounter with his brother at Florida aquarium

The marine mammals are “not too meticulous about who their partners are," an expert said.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquariumin in Sarasota, Fla.
The Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla.Google Maps

A manatee who died in a Florida aquarium this year sustained fatal injuries caused by sex with his brother, officials said.

Hugh, 38, died unexpectedly April 29 at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, which this week shed more light on the animal’s passing, saying the injury was most likely the result of sex with his brother, Buffett.

Mote insisted that Hugh's handlers never believed he was in any danger.

“On the day of Hugh’s passing, Hugh and Buffett engaged in natural, yet increased, mating behavior observed and documented in manatees both in managed care and in the wild,” the aquarium said in a statement. “This was the first time such heightened mating behavior was witnessed between the two manatees.”

A necropsy performed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab found the fatal wound was a "14.5 cm long tear in the ventral wall" of his colon.

"Hugh and Buffett were both observed initiating and mutually seeking interactions from each other throughout the day and there were no obvious signs of discomfort or distress such as listing, crunching, or active avoidance that would have triggered a need for intervention," the aquarium said.

Keepers didn't try to physically separate the manatees during sex, fearing that would do more harm.

"Following the direction of the veterinarians, distraction rather than physical separation was chosen because separation has previously caused undue anxiety and negative effects in both manatees," the aquarium said.

"In an effort to redirect the manatees’ attention and decrease undesirable behaviors, animal care staff used positive reinforcement tools such as high value rewards and enrichment that had previously been successful."

Jenessa Gjeltema, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, declined to second-guess the aquarium's actions.

"You can have a poor outcome in those kinds of situations either way sometimes," she said Thursday. "I can't say whether they took the right actions or not. Only the people there would know for sure. Managing these wild animals under human care, it's not always a straightforward situation."

Sex between male manatees — even brothers — is far from uncommon.

"They're not too meticulous about who their partners are. They just have this kind of a sexual urge, and then they'll engage in activity with whomever seems to be in the area, and if that's a female, great," Gjeltema said.

"But if there are not enough females around or there are only males around, they may express that sexual behavior on whatever individual may be in the vicinity," she said.

And as generally solitary beings, manatees don't have a strong sense of familial structure, leading to the encounter between brothers Hugh and Buffett.

"That context of whom is related to whom is less of an important factor in their social engagements and interactions," Gjeltema said.