Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Little-known Manatees of Panama

Finding Neotropical mammals is always a rewarding challenge.  There is a great diversity of mammals in Panama, over 230 species are found in this small country, in a wide variety of habitats.  It is the best place I know to see sloths, two species, in all of the Americas.  In certain places, common forest mammals such as Central American Agoutis and White-nosed Coatis are common.  Lesser Capybaras live along the banks of the mighty Chagres River, which feeds into the Panama Canal.  Panama is a wonderful place to search for mammals, but it is not as easy as it may seem.  Many Neotropical mammals by nature are nocturnal, which means spending time in the deep darkness of the forests to find them.  Certain species, like cats, are incredibly elusive.  Finding these animals requires patience and at times, may seem like a near-impossible task.  

I had heard rumors of a population of West Indian Manatees, one of Panama's rarest mammals, living in Lake Gatun.  Odd reports show up here and there, many of them are unfortunately of carcasses that float to the surface.  Manatees are fully aquatic, and live in tranquil, dark waters of shallow lakes, thus are rarely encountered.  Aerial surveys may be the best way to see these large mammals in quiet bays from above, other than that, a sighting of a manatee in Panama is a very rare occasion. 

On September 12, I guided a jungle boat tour along the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun.  We had perfect weather, and as we cruised around the waters and scanned the banks, we came across an abundance of animals - Snail Kites, American Crocodiles, Iguanas, White-headed Capuchins, Mantled Howlers, Limpkins, Proboscis Bats, and so much more.  About halfway through the tour (around 4:00 pm), as we glided in our little motor boat through the calm waters along the edges of Lake Gatun, I started to think about manatees, remembering that there are occasional sightings.  Not even two minutes later, we saw the large, rounded back emerge above the water surface, followed by the unique, round tail of a manatee.  We couldn't believe our eyes... a manatee!  Only metres from our boat!  We all saw it in great view.  Its true, they do exist in the dark waters of Lake Gatun.  Among many great wildlife sighting moments I have had, this is one of the most memorable.
Lake Gatun
The calm waters of Lake Gatun
So, what are manatees doing in the Panama Canal?  Information about the populations of manatees in Panama is not well-known, and there have been very little studies done to learn about their existence here.  In 1964, nine West Indian Manatees from Bocas del Toro and one Amazonian Manatee from Peru were introduced into Lake Gatun by the former Panama Canal Commission as a part of an aquatic vegetation control program.  The program was abandoned a few years later, and the manatees were left to live in the lake.  It is difficult to say how many manatees are here, but its not many; a study in 1980 estimated approximately 25 individuals, and a more recent study in 2008 resulted in 16 individuals seen in an aerial survey, this being the highest number ever recorded in Lake Gatun.  However, calves were seen so this population, although small, seems to be sustaining itself.  Hopefully the manatees of Panama will continue to live and reproduce in the waters of Lake Gatun. 

~ Jenn 

1 comment:

  1. I was an Army helicopter pilot in the late 80's and saw manatees many times while flying over lake Gatun - glad to hear they are still around! (also saw large crocodiles/caimain occasionally)