Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Marine Science

Major Professor

Gabriel A. Vargo, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Joseph J. Torres, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Susan S. Bell, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Richard H. Pierce, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jan H. Landsberg, Ph.D.


Karenia brevis, red tide, food web, brevetoxicosis, Florida manatee, bottlenose dolphin


Mass mortalities of Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been attributed to brevetoxins produced by the Florida red tide dinoflagellate Karenia brevis. The multiple routes through which marine mammals can be exposed to brevetoxins have complicated efforts to understand the mechanisms that lead to mass mortality events. In spring of 2002, 34 endangered Florida manatees died in southwest Florida, and in spring of 2004, 107 bottlenose dolphins died in the Florida Panhandle. These events provided unique opportunities to make clear connections between ingested brevetoxins and marine mammal mortalities without the confounding issues of concurrent exposure through direct contact or inhalation.

Prior to 2002, the accumulation of brevetoxins on or in seagrass had never been previously reported, and the delayed or chronic exposure of manatees to brevetoxins through seagrass was not recognized as a threat. Brevetoxins were shown to persist in association with seagrass at high levels for weeks and at lower levels for months in the absence of K. brevis. Analyses of the epiphytes and detritus on the surface of the seagrass leaves as well as of the cleaned seagrass leaves and rhizomes revealed that during a K. brevis bloom as much as half of the toxin present in the seagrass may be associated with the leaves themselves, while after a bloom, the majority of the toxin present is associated with the epiphytes.

The 2004 mass mortality of bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Panhandle clearly indicated that fish have the potential to vector brevetoxins to higher tropic levels. Analyses of fish collected live from St. Joseph Bay and southwest Florida revealed that brevetoxin accumulation in fish is a common occurrence.

Planktivorous clupeid fish are capable of accumulating high concentrations of brevetoxins within their viscera, and their movement can result in spatial separation of a bloom and animal exposure. Sciaenid species and pinfish also accumulated brevetoxins but to a lower extent. These fish, as well as other omnivorous and piscivorous species, may retain brevetoxins in their tissues at significant concentrations after a bloom has dissipated, which may lead to temporal separation of blooms and animal exposure.