ORANGE CITY, Fla. (FOX 35 ORLANDO) - It's a hidden danger for Florida's manatees: the armored catfish. Experts say the fish can actually kill the gentle giants, but a local professor is now on a mission to save them.
Dr. Melissa Gibbs, a biology professor at Stetson University, visits Blue Spring State Park once a month. She spots armored catfish that are latched onto the manatees and spears as many as she can.
Dr. Gibbs told FOX 35 that the fish have soft, suckery mouths, "so they latch onto the manatees and start grazing the algae off of their skin."
The manatees try so hard to shake these armored catfish off, they actually burn more calories than normal, which could ultimately lead to their demise. Dr. Gibbs said that another risk is that the manatees "have to go out into the really cold river more frequently and they're at risk of cold shock, which can kill them."
The armored catfish is considered an invasive species that feeds off of Florida's natural habitat.
"Florida is a hot spot for invasive species. It's a real problem that so many things have bene brought to Florida and set free," said Terry Farrel, another biology professor at Stetson.
People started buying armored catfish from the Amazon Basin to eat the algae in their fishtanks at home. Eventually, they get too big for the tanks -- a full-sized armored catfish can grow up to two feet in length. So, people release them into the wild, where they eat the algae off of the backs of manatees.
The armored catfish also reproduce so quickly, the manatees are basically no match for them. Imagine 30,000 or more eggs being laid by a single female in a single summer.
While Dr. Gibbs has speared more than 8,000 armored catfish, there is just no way to get rid of them all, so she will keep hunting them and protecting Florida's beloved manatee.
Video and photo courtesy of Cora Berchem at the Save the Manatee Club.