Red tide, a toxic swath of microscopic algae that now covers a sizable portion of Florida’s west coast, has killed 174 manatees as of Tuesday. According to CNN, this year’s unusually long-lasting red tide invaded the migratory waters of the local manatee population. The algae in the red tide is eaten along with sea grass by the manatees, which can cause paralysis, seizures, lack of coordination, and a coma-like state. These symptoms can kill the animal through drowning.
“This is probably going to be the worst die-off in history,” Veterinarian Martine DeWit told the Tampa Bay Times. The last time the red tide killed so many of the animals was in 1996, with 151 manatees dead.
Manatees are listed as endangered animals by both Florida and the federal government.
“They’re basically paralyzed and they’re comatose,” said Viginia Edmonds, rescue worker and animal care manager for the Lowry Park Zoo where 11 of the afflicted animals were taken for treatment. “They could drown in two inches of water.”
The toxic algae is expected to remain in the environment two months after the red tide recedes, which will further increase the manatee deaths. Dense gatherings of the algae can turn the water red, giving the phenomenon its name.