MIAMI (AP) - For the first time, researchers have found manatees suffering from viral infections, raising worries that the endangered sea mammal now has a new threat.
The virus caused skin lesions for two manatees living in captivity in Florida, while two others with similar lesions have not yet been tested.
"My concern is that there are only about 3,000 of these animals left and they're under such pressure from man that they don't need any other pressures," said Dr. Gregory Bossart, a University of Miami veterinarian and pathologist who first identified the virus in his lab.
Types of the papillomavirus are also found in humans, cows, and other mammals. A similar virus caused lesions for Keiko, the killer whale featured in the movie "Free Willie."
Though researchers are still unsure how manatees may be affected, in other animals lesions can interfere with the eyes, the nose and the genitals.
Other scientists cautioned that the virus may not be a new health threat, but only went undiscovered before.
"We've suspected all along they've been there," said Scott Wright, a researcher with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. Most agree the virus needs more study.
The West Indian manatee, also known as a sea cow, grows to about 12 feet and weighs up to 500 pounds. A plant-eating distant relative of the elephant, manatees are found in the bays and rivers of Florida, Mexico, Belize and northern South America.
The U.S. population reached a record 2,639 last year, though 415 died - more than twice the previous record of 206 deaths in 1990.
Most died from toxins produced by naturally-occurring microorganisms known as red tide, though many sea cows die from cuts from boat propellers or other boat-related injuries.
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