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A lab in Florida acts as a real-life CSI show ... for manatees

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In reality, de Wit may be the only official manatee detective in the nation. While other marine-mammal biologists work with the lumbering creatures around Florida, some at theme parks such as Sea World in Orlando, de Wit is the only one employed by the state dedicated solely to both live rescues and autopsies.

The work she and her team does is politically important. Protection of manatees remains an incendiary topic in Florida, with environmentalists always pushing for more restrictions and boaters and fishermen often fighting against them. Her work can be crucial in such disputes – in the public arena and the courts.

"We have to look at all of the evidence and determine how these manatees died," says de Wit. "It could be environmental, such as cold stress or red tide, the animal might have been stuck in a lock gate. But there are any number of human-related causes – a watercraft strike, ingestion of fishing gear, and so on."

• • •

Little here looks quite like the sets in the Hollywood crime shows. No Hummers sit in the parking lot. No state-of-the-art computer banks whir in the lab on which you can solve almost anything at the click of a mouse.

The scene is more basic: A 22-foot boat sits in the yard with the words "Manatee Rescue" painted on it. Inside, the skeleton of one of the sea mammals hangs from the wall, giving the lab the feel of an exhibit room at the Smithsonian.

De Wit and her colleagues begin sifting through clues to determine the death of MSW0821. She finds a wound on the animal's head and grass in its mouth. This proves, she says, that it was still eating when it was struck by a boat and that death came instantly.

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