If you happen to be looking on the water and see a tail gracefully waving hello, you may think you’re witnessing a real-life mermaid but it’s actually a creature even more lovely, the manatee.
Manatees are slow-moving sea cows that have a long-rounded body, with short flippers on the front and a tail that’s horizontal and flat like a paddle. They’re gray in color and have three to four nails on their front flippers. Manatees have a wizened head and face with whiskers poking out from their snout. They closely resemble an elephant, which is one of their closest relatives not counting the hyrax (a small mammal) and are said to have evolved from a wading animal that was a plant eater.
Even though they all look highly similar there are actually three species of manatee; the West Indian manatee (American manatee), the West African manatee and the Amazonian manatee. These manatees are also related to the dugong and Steller’s sea cow, which sadly in 1768 was hunted into extinction.
Manatees can range from 8 to 13 feet and can weigh 440 to 1,200 lbs. They’re usually found in shallow water such as estuaries, canals, slow-moving rivers, and saltwater bays; spots where freshwater vegetation and beds of seagrass are. Manatee’s migrate throughout the year within the U.S., spending winter in Florida, and during the summer can be found near places such as Texas, Massachusetts, South Carolina and even Alabama. They need to be in warm water to survive. Since manatees are slow-moving, gentle creatures they spend most of their time traveling, resting and eating.
Manatees are mainly herbivores, but sometimes small invertebrates and fish can be ingested with their usual vegetation diet. Manatees eat aquatic plants such as sea grasses and also consume floating, submerged and growing vegetation in saltwater, freshwater and brackish settings.
Since they are mammals, manatees have to come up to the surface every so often to breathe air. They rise up to the surface on average every three to five minutes to breathe. When they have exerted a lot of energy however, they go up to breathe every 30 seconds. While manatees are resting, they can stay underwater up to 20 minutes before having to go to the surface. Manatees swim about three to five mph but in short bursts can get up to speeds around 20 mph. They can also live up to 60 years or more in their natural habitat since they have no biological enemies.
Manatees’ reproductive rate is low, and they can only give birth every two years. This is because the mothers carry their baby (twins are rare) for twelve months before being born. After the calf is born the mothers devote the first two years to raising them and making them strong and successful for their adulthood.
Since they have no natural foes, the causes of death for manatees are usually natural, such as gastrointestinal disease, stress from the cold, pneumonia as well as other diseases. A high amount of added fatalities however is from human-related occurrences. This is why in the United States the West Indian manatees are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Manatees are so important and critical to our ocean’s ecosystem. Since they eat up to 150 pounds a day, they help with maintaining the high levels of coastal blue carbon in our oceans and the waterways!
So, if you ever visit us down here in the Everglades keep on the lookout in the Barron River for a manatee or two coasting along.