New College researchers study African manatees

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- by Jo Nguyen


The Cross College Alliance awarded Athena Rycyk, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Biology and Marine Science at New College, a grant to work on the first characterization of African manatee vocalizations in collaboration with the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (AMMCO).
This grant, along with additional New College support, allowed Rycyk to bring in four New College student interns: third-years Cecilia Hampton and Hannah Nations, and fourth-years Emily Garcia and Karianne Kapfer.
In January, Rycyk sent an acoustic recorder to a group they worked with in Cameroon. The Cameroon group deployed the recorder in Lake Ossa for two three-day periods. Within a six-day period, there were well over 3,400 vocalizations to work through and analyze during the summer.
“The project has exceeded all of our wildest expectations,” said Rycyk. “We thought that we would maybe get 100 or 200 and we’d be happy with that. But now we actually have the problem of too much data.”
Rycyk’s interest in manatee vocal behavior began with a fascination with how much she could learn about marine mammals by listening to them. “I was excited to have the time and support to dig into the vocal behavior aspect for Florida manatees. Then, African manatees are, of course, an interesting topic—to be able to help learn more about a species we know so little about that’s threatened and on the decline,” Rycyk said.
Particularly in Cameroon, there has been an ecological shift with the invasive plant species, Salvinia, in Lake Ossa that is competing with antelope grass (the manatee’s main source of food). Salvinia grows in clumps, blocking possible manatee sightings. This blockage makes it difficult to determine whether there are less manatee sightings because there are less of them or because they are leaving Lake Ossa. If passive acoustics prove viable, researchers will compare their base acoustic detections between areas that are and are not invaded, to find out if manatees are being displaced or disappearing.
Using passive acoustics (only using recordings to maintain a non-invasive research method), the New College student interns worked with Rycyk to learn how to identify what manatees sound like, develop protocols to characterize them, create methods for them to objectively reproduce them, and analyze the vocalizations themselves.
“There was always such a pure excitement in early auditing every time I heard chewing or a manatee call, knowing the manatees were there and living their lives in a way that we could observe without disturbing them,” described Hampton.
Gathering all of their research to date, Rycyk presented their preliminary findings last week at the University of Florida’s 3rd Annual Manatee Research Symposium. This project not only gave the interns the opportunity to delve into research but also be included as co-authors on the paper.
“When I saw my name as a co-author on Dr. Rycyk’s title slide, I almost cried,” said Kapfer. “Being able to help fill in some of the many gaps in marine mammal knowledge is an honor.”
Although the internship is over, all four students have decided to stay on with the project to finish vocalization analyses and write the manuscript through a group tutorial sponsored by Rycyk.
As part of New College’s Natural Science seminar series, Aristide Takoukam Kamla, Ph.D., president and founder of the AMMCO, will present a talk entitled, “How Do We Protect the Invisible?: Conservation Efforts of the Elusive African Manatee in Cameroon” from 4 to 5 p.m. Mon. Sept. 28 on Zoom.
Jo Nguyen is a writing intern in the Office of Communications & Marketing.