In the rivers, springs and shallow coastal waters of Florida
a seal shaped mammal called the manatee (more commonly known as sea
cow) can be found. Fossil records suggest that the ancestors of these
aquatic mammals belonging to the Order Sirenia may have been four footed
land dwellers 60 million years ago.
There are three species of manatees: West African (Trichechus senegalensis), Amazonian (Trichechus inunguis), and the West Indian (Trichechus manatus) manatee of which a subspecies can be found in Florida. During
the winter months in America, manatees concentrate in Florida since
they do not have blubber to keep them warm and hence prefer warmer waters.
At other times of the year, manatees have been sighted from Louisiana
to the Carolinas and Virginia. Clearly, they can survive in fresh as
well as salt waters.
At a glance, their grayish-brown skin is wrinkly and peppered with short
bristly hairs. Stiff facial whiskers also dart from their bulbous puffy
snouts. Their facial expressions are indicative of their overall behavior
which is placid. Their tranquil expressions may lie in the fact that
their eyes are small, close together, and recessed. Adults can reach
13 feet in length and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. Females are often
greater in length and weigh more than males.
These gentle creatures, who spend more than five hours a day feeding
on seagrasses, are endangered to the point of extinction. Their story
is a familiar one - humans are the major threat to their existence.
High mortality is caused mainly by boat propeller lacerations, high
speed barge/boat collisions, water pollution, and the loss of habitat.
Boat strike injury on back of a manatee
A recent count revealed there are only 1,463 manatees left. The foremost
concern is how to prevent continued loss and possible extinction. One
way to prevent injury/death is to put a restriction on water boat speeds
in known manatee habitats in the waters of coastal Florida. Since manatees
do now swim very fast, boat speeds greater than 20 mph are too high
for them to avoid collisions and propeller injuries. Speed limits should
be restricted by law to less than 20 mph.
Hopefully fostering and enacting such legislation would represent a
start to the halt of a major cause of agony and death for these animals.
Only when we realize that human actions are the root cause of the suffering
of these placid beasts can we take the necessary responsible for their
Manatees: Florida's Real Mermaids
On the 500th anniversary of Columbus' contact with the New World, it
is fitting to introduce Save The Whales members to the West Indian manatee
(Trichechus manatus) , perhaps America's first marine mammal to amaze
Europeans During their exploration of the "West Indies."
Today, may people still find the manatee novel and mysterious. Derived
from the Carib word manati, meaning "with breasts," the manatee
was first recorded in print when a shipful of Columbus' half-crazed
sailors saw several of the "sirens" off the coast of Hispaniola
in 1492. Myth has it that the sailors -- starved for female company
-- upon viewing a manatee thought it was a mermaid. European sailors
actually saw West African manatees (Trichechus senagalensis) off the
coast of Africa decades before Columbus accidentally arrived in the
Americas. Trade by ship between Africa and southern Europe was common
by the 15th century, so it is likely that at least one of Columbus'
crew saw his first manatee not in the West Indies, but off the coast
of West Africa.
The manatee is distantly related to the Dugong (Dugong dugon), a wonderful creature
commonly known in English as the dugong. Dugongs are 100% marine mammals
and occupy shallow coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific, where they are
locally known in many different languages as "sea cow" and
"sea pig." The only living member of the Order Sirenia with
a falcate tail, the dugong looks like an obese dolphin with a cow-like
head and inconspicuous tusks like those of a hippopotamus.
The West India manatee is most closely related to the West African manatee
which, in turn, is a kissing cousin to the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus
inunguis), the only Sirenian that is totally restricted to a freshwater
The West Indian and West African manatees are "edge" animals.
Part of their time is spent in freshwater and part in sea water. They
prefer bays, estuaries and river mouths where the mixture of saltwater
and freshwater habitats provide a diverse food supply of aquatic plants.
Weighing up to approximately 3,000 pounds and reaching 13 feet in length,
adult manatees can be intimidating creatures when viewed underwater
in their murky-green habitat. These nearshore leviathans are completely
harmless, however, and upon closer inspection appear to be rather awkward,
if not absolutely ridiculous. Unlike its very distant relative, the
elephant, the thick-skinned manatee has a small, cow-like head, prehensile
flippers, no hind limbs, and a large, wide paddle-like tail. Docile
in nature and vegetarian in diet, manatees are basically buoyant bags
of intestines incredibly well adapted for the most simple of habits:
eating, eating and eating, hence their nickname "sea cow."
Since they feed on poor-quality food (freshwater vegetation, sea grasses
and algae), manatees have an extra large body to house the stomach and
voluminous intestines needed to extract the few nutrients available
in what hi-fiber food they manage to stuff in their very active jaws.
The word besides bizarre that best describes the manatee is slow . To
enhance their survival, manatees come equipped with a very low metabolism
(second only to the sloth) that reduces their energy requirements, which
in turn enables them to survive on an energy-poor diet. One of the "costs"
of having a low metabolism is the need to have a warm environment where
the ambient climate is basically "room temperature."
To find that warm water environment, West Indian manatees can be found
swimming along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of the Americas from
Georgia to Brazil, including the Caribbean Islands of Cuba, Jamaica,
Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The best place to see a manatee in the wild
is Florida in the winter, where the sea cows are attracted to the warm
waters of power plant effluents and clear 72 degree groundwater springs.
Aerial surveys indicate that the continental United States has a manatee
population of about 2,000 (give or take a few hundred), mostly in Florida.
Although 2,000 isn't an exceptionally low population number for an endangered
animal, the plight of Florida's manatees is viewed in a more serious
light when you consider that over 100 of the animals die each year in
the United States. Manatees are dying from human-related injuries because
of conflicts over land and water use.
Each year, thousands of new residents move to Florida where they express
their "right to enjoy the good life." Many of these new residents
purchase power boats to take advantage of the excellent fishing and
recreational opportunities in calm coastal waters. These are the same
waters that provide food and shelter for manatees.
A major problem with speed boats is that the slow-moving manatee (feeding,
sleeping or swimming in the shallow water) has a difficult time avoiding
the high-speed watercraft when it passes overhead, especially when the
animal comes up for a breath of air. Another threat is the physical
loss of habitat, such as when sea grass beds are destroyed by the construction
of new marinas.
Constrained by a tourism economy and high rate of population growth,
the state of Florida finds it increasingly difficult to balance the
needs of wildlife with the needs of the local economy. The manatee is
a symbol of the conflict, and its fate in the United States will be
determined by what Floridians value more: the management of public lands
and waterways for short-term economic growth, or the management of public
lands and waterways for long-term critical habitat conservation and
endangered species protection.
The organization most responsible for the public's awareness and advocacy
for the manatee is Save The Manatee Club (SMC), a ten-year-old nonprofit
organization with an international membership of 32,000. To support
SMC in its efforts to protect the manatee, call 1-800-432JOIN or write
Save The Manatee Club; 500 North Maitland Avenue; Maitland, Florida
32751. I encourage anyone traveling in Florida, especially in the winter,
to take advantage of the unique opportunity to see this endangered mammal
in the wild. Simply visit Blue Spring State Park, Homosassa Springs
State Wildlife Park, or Crystal River...you will have the thrill of
By: Larry Hurst
Larry is a former research assistant with Fish and Wildlife Service.
He has studied manatees in Florida and Jamaica and continues his work
with manatees as a naturalist with Oceanic Society Expeditions.
Maris Sidenstecker II, marine biologist and co-founder of Save The Whales, swims with manatees
at Crystal Springs, Florida on New Year's Day 2008. The animals would show where they
wanted to be scratched and the happy humans would oblige. © 2008 Sally Bartel
Go to Other Marine Mammals