The American Manatee – the massive sea cow that must be protected

Natural habitat:

Shallow coastal areas, including rivers

Conservation status:

Vulnerable species

The American manatee, also known as the West Indian manatee or sea cow, is the largest surviving aquatic mammal of the Sirenia order. Strikingly similar to seals, these manatees are a completely different species, more closely related to elephants than to whales or dolphins. Until recently, the American Manatee population and two related subspecies (West Indian and West African) were widely spread, but they now face potential extinction and are vulnerable to a number of threats.

American Manatees are massive, stretching to lengths of up to 3.5 meters and weighing over 500 kilograms.

With a coat that is usually greyish brown, these manatees are also recognizable for their large spoon-shaped tail, flippers, prehensile snout, and the sparse hairs spread all over their bodies.

These mammals may be heavy, but their strong tails and flippers can move them at rates of up to 8km/h. They can move even faster in short bursts. In place of hind limbs, they have a spatula-like paddle for better propulsion. Their lack of external ear flaps means even less resistance when they’re moving underwater. All three species of manatees can be found in warm waters from Florida to the Bahamas to Brazil. They have a high preference for warm waters because of their extremely low metabolic rate and lack of insulating body fat.

Even though they are known for being solitary creatures, manatees form large mating herds when it's time to breed. When calves are born, after a gestation period of around 12 months, their mothers bring them to the surface for their first breath of air.

Male manatees, on the other hand, do not form permanent bonds with calves or contribute to their parental care.

While calves drink mother’s milk, adult manatees are strictly herbivorous. Seagrass is a staple of their diet, but manatees also consume over 60 different species of aquatic plants. Since they need to eat about 10% of their body mass daily, it’s no wonder they’re so large!

They might be bulky and firm, but the American manatee is considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Manatees are protected by many international and state laws and regulations. They are also preserved in Blue Spring State Park and other refuges that are open to the public. Despite these efforts, the American manatee still faces the possibility of extinction due to illegal hunting, motorboat accidents, the low number of mature individuals, loss of their warm-water habitat, and more.

Did you know?

  • The largest American manatee on record weighed 1,655 kg (3,649 lbs) and measured 4.6 m (15 ft) long.

  • Although manatees never leave the water, they must surface to breathe every 3-4 minutes while swimming.

  • The name manatee comes from the Taíno (a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean) word manatí, meaning "breast".

  • Manatees have no natural predators in the wild, making humans the only and the biggest threat to their existence.

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