The manatee (aka sea cow) is a large fully aquatic marine mammal that has a uniquely shaped body when compared to most other marine mammal species.
These interesting animals can be seen living in a number of areas such as the Amazon Basin, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and West Africa.
They are closely related to the Dugong and belong to the same order (Serenia) but are from different families.
As a whole manatees are fairly solitary in nature and rarely gather into large social crowds.
Their name “Manati” originated from the Taino people of the Caribbean which means “breast”.
Physical Characteristics and Appearance
In terms of appearance manatees are known for their round oval-shaped stocky bodies, paddle shaped flippers and paddle shaped tail.
The skull is bulbous shaped with a relatively short snout and the eyes are separate and spaced far apart on its head, possibly to improve its ability to see objects from either side.
Manatees only posses a few teeth and most have no more than 6 teeth on each side of its jaw (however in some cases they may possess as many as 8) that are replaced over and over again throughout the manatees life.
Unlike other animals the manatees teeth are not well defined and they do not possess any incisor or canine teeth, however they do have teeth on the sides of their jaws.
At full length the manatee may measure between 9 – 12 ft. long with most measuring in at no more than 10 ft. long.
The average weight is typically between 850 – 1,250 lbs., however these marine mammals can weigh up to nearly 4,000 lbs. at their heaviest.
Females tend to be larger and heavier than their male counterparts.
Despite their large, round size these marine mammals can swim up to 20 mph for short periods of time when startled or threatened.
In most cases however the manatee prefers to live a slow and solitary lifestyle.
Because manatees are marine mammals they must rise to the surface of the water in order to breathe.
Unlike whales that possess blowholes the manatee breathes by lifting its nostrils above the waters surface which is located on the front of its snout.
It is estimated that manatees may spend the majority of their time underwater surfacing once every 20 minutes or so for oxygen and up to 50% of the time may be spent resting/sleeping underwater.
Diet and Hunting Methods
When it comes to diet the manatee is known as a herbivorous animal because its diet consists of consuming aquatic plant life, roots and algae.
When searching for food at the bottom of the water the manatee uses its flippers to help it walk across the surface and when it finds an available food source it uses its paddle-shaped flippers to help lift the food into its mouth.
To assist with eating these marine mammals have a large upper lip that allows them to better grasp their food.
Once they gather the food into their mouth they use their teeth and the dense rigged pads found on the roof of their mouth to chew the plants and roots apart and break it down for easier digestion.
The manatee has a simple stomach with a large cecum and large/long intestines that help the animal digest tough plant-life.
When consuming large amounts of plants and other food sources the manatee can consume as much as 1/10th its body weight in food on a daily basis.
Habitat and Migration
The manatee can be found living in shallow, coastal waters and rivers in the Amazon Basin, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and West Africa.
While they aren’t known to make long migration trips they will frequently migrate between local areas and move towards warmer weather during the colder months of the year.
These marine mammals prefer living in warmer waters and tend to avoid waters below 70° F.
It is believed that the manatee cannot survive environments below 60° F.
Social Structure and Communication
Manatees communicate using a wide variety of sounds, physical gestures (such as touching and bumping) and through various forms of body language.
Communication is often seen between a mother and her child or during sexual interactions where a male manatee attempts to mate with a female, however these marine mammals can also be observed communicating as a form of play or during other social gatherings.
As a species manatees are largely solitary animals, but may gather together or interact with one another on occasion or when attempting to find a partner to reproduce with.
Reproduction and Lifespan
Reproduction for manatees begins with a male searching for and following a responsive female.
Once the female becomes impregnated by a male she goes through a 12 months gestation period before giving birth.
Newborn baby manatees are then cared for by their mother and fed milk for 12 – 18 months or until they fully adjust to searching for and consuming their own food sources.
Reproduction for fertile female manatees is generally once every 2 years.
In most cases reproduction consists of giving birth to a single child; twins are rare.
When it comes to lifespan the manatee is believed to have an average lifespan of around 40 years in the wild.
Threats and Conservation
Because of their large size and shallow water habitat the manatee is relatively safe from being hunted by predators.
These marine mammals have however been hunted by the indigenous peoples of the Caribbeans and although hunting is now considered illegal there are still cases of manatees being occasionally hunted by poachers.
Other than being intentionally hunted by poachers manatees may also face threats from collisions with ships and other large vessels, getting injured or killed by fishing hooks and other fishing gear, habitat destruction and degradation and red tides which are caused by significant increases in algae that can harm, poison and even kill manatees.
Given its limited range and distribution the manatee is considered an endangered animal and is protected from hunting by law.