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Quality of thermal refuges influences use by the cold intolerant Florida manatee

Catherine G. Haase*, Robert J. Fletcher Jr., Daniel H. Slone, James P. Reid, Susan M. Butler

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Thermal refuges are habitats used by species for behavioral thermoregulation. These habitats can be highly dynamic and are often influenced by fluctuations in local climate. When protected species require thermal refuges, it is necessary to identify stable and high quality areas by evaluating species use in response to variation in thermal refuge quality. Here we assessed behavioral thermoregulation in the Florida manatee Trichechus manatus latirostris, a cold-intolerant marine mammal. Using metrics from ectotherm physiology, we evaluated thermal quality of 2 refuge types (passive thermal basins, natural springs) in 2 areas of their distribution. Thermal refuge quality was assessed with respect to the lower critical threshold of the manatee (20°C) and the surrounding ambient temperatures and compared between refuge types. We used GPS locations of manatees to quantify visits to refuges and calculated total visit duration in each refuge by individual manatees. At natural springs, we found a negative correlation between visit duration and ambient temperature during cold weather; visit duration also increased with the temperature differential between the spring and the lower critical thermal threshold. Visit duration at passive thermal basins was negatively correlated with the thermal differential between the refuge and the lower critical thermal threshold. The relationship between thermal refuge quality and time-use metrics sheds light on the potential implications of habitat degradation on animal energetics and behavior. Given these results, focusing on potential key refuges in each system may inform targeted management and habitat restoration efforts to maintain adequate thermal refuge environments for this listed species.