NBC NATIONAL NEWS — The recent cold weather means more Florida manatees are searching for warmer waters - and with good reason.
New statistics from Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission show an alarming trend linking cold stress to 450 manatee deaths in the past three years.
To keep better tabs on manatees, FWC and Mote Marine Laboratory are trying to switch the way they track the sea cows.
"We're taking a little bit of skin from each manatee," said FWC scientist Joel Ortiz.
Scientists are now in their third year of "popping" manatees.
Each time they collect skin samples to grow the new DNA database.
Right now, scientists track manatees by their scar patterns, but they're hoping to change that method.
They say they believe they can more accurately track manatees by relying on DNA instead of pictures.
"To track the survival rates of individuals," Ortiz said.
He explained the hope is that better tracking will mean more manatees, so they can keep coming back to the park.
Florida Fish and Wildlife reports 453 manatees died in Florida last year, the second highest number on record.
Of the 453 deaths, 112 were "cold stress" deaths.
In 2010 there were 282 cold-related deaths and 56 in 2009.
The number of deaths this year was second only to 2010 when 766 manatees died. In 2009, a total of 429 manatees died in Florida.
"We are concerned about the number of manatee deaths the past three years, including those resulting from exposure to cold weather," said Gil McRae, director of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "Over the next few years, we will use data from monitoring programs to better understand any long-term implications for the population. We will continue to work with our partners to enhance the availability of natural warm-water sites, which are important habitats for the species' survival."