Uncovering the Life of Antillean Manatees in Belize

Ph.D. candidate Eric Ramos uses a drone in Belize to study manatees. (Photos courtesy of Eric Ramos)

Graduate Center doctoral candidate Eric Ramos (Psychology) says he spent years of his life not knowing what he wanted to do with his future. All that changed after he started volunteering at a marine lab at Hunter College while pursuing his master’s degree.

“I got into the field and saw dolphins, and saw nature for the first time,” Ramos recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, there are things in this world worth caring about and giving your time to.’ I’ve changed entirely as a human being since I first went into the field.”

These days, the New York native does most of his research on animal behavior and conservation in his home-away-from-home, Belize. There, he’s spent most of his time researching bottlenose dolphins and leading ecotourism trips to pay for his research. But Ramos says a “happy accident” during a trip to St. George's Caye with fellow researchers prompted him to briefly shift his focus to another aquatic mammal: the Antillean manatee.

“I was there doing my research with dolphins and figured out, ‘Wow! You can see manatees really, really well here with a drone,’“ he recalls. “Once I saw them, I was like, ‘We could actually do some studies here right from the beach.’”

Ramos is the co-author of two studies that will help researchers learn more about the threatened, understudied Antillean manatee. One study, published in Endangered Species Research, tackles monitoring the elusive manatees. The other, in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, looks deeply at how the aquatic mammals communicate. 

Knowing more about manatees’ movement habits and survival and reproductive patterns would benefit conservation efforts. But it’s difficult to monitor animals in remote, marine habitats. So, Ramos and colleagues decided to use drones to study the animals.

“Manatees have pretty interesting, complicating behaviors. They do a lot of surprising things,” Ramos says. “In order to protect them we need to figure out what those things are and learn how we can use them to benefit their conservation. Some species need certain kinds of protection just because they’re in such rapid decline. Manatees need everything they can get.”

Ramos’ research topic is adapting small drones to study coastal marine mammals in Belize. After completing his Ph.D., he says he hopes to continue doing research in the country because “the area needs long-term investment and scientific study.”

There are no signs that the animal-lover will stop guiding ecotourism trips with the Oceanic Society, either. 

“A lot of it is social science–based ecotourism and we work in the most sustainable ways we can. The reason I work in it is because it’s a powerful vehicle for doing scientific research,” he says. “We’re also collecting scientific data that we could not get if people didn’t pay to go on the trips.”

Submitted on: MAR 12, 2020

Category: Animal Behavior | Diversity | General GC News | Research Studies | Student News | Voices of the GC