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All Things Manatee.
Information and pictures on Manatees.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.



Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully-aquatic marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. The name comes from the Spanish manatí, which itself comes from a Carib word meaning "breast." They comprise three of the four living species in the order Sirenia, the other being the dugong, which is native to the Eastern Hemisphere. The Sirenia is thought to have evolved from four legged land mammals over 60 million years ago, with the closest living relatives being the Proboscidea (elephants) and Hyracoidea (hyraxes).

The Trichechidae differ from the Dugong in the shape of the skull and the shape of the tail. Dugongs have a forked tail, similar in shape to a whale's, while manatees' tails are paddle-shaped. They are mainly herbivores, spending most of their time Manatee grazing in shallow waters and at depths of 1-2 m (3-7 ft). Much of the knowledge about manatees is based upon research done in Florida and cannot necessarily be attributed to all types of manatees. Generally, manatees have a mean mass of 410-545 kg (900-1200 lb), and mean length of 2.7-3 m (9-10 ft), with maximums of 3.6 m and 1775 kg seen (the females tend to be larger and heavier). When born, baby manatees have an average mass of 30 kg.

On average, most manatees swim about 3 to 5 miles per hour. However, they have been known to swim up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts. Manatees inhabit the shallow, marshy coastal areas and rivers of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico (T. manatus, West Indian Manatee), the Amazon basin (T. inunguis, Amazonian Manatee), and West Africa (T. senegalensis, West African Manatee). A fourth species, the Dwarf Manatee (T. bernhardi sp. nov.) was recently proposed for a population found in the Brazilian Amazon. Florida is usually the northernmost range of the West Indian manatee as their low metabolic rate makes cold weather endurance difficult. They may on occasion stray up the mid-Atlantic coast in summer. Half a manatee's day is spent sleeping in the water, surfacing for air regularly at intervals no greater than 20 minutes.

Florida manatees (T. m. latirostris) have been known to live up to 60 years, and they can move freely between salinity extremes; however, Amazonian manatees (T. inunguis) never venture out into salt water. They have a large flexible prehensile upper lip that acts in many ways like a shortened trunk, somewhat similar to an Manatee elephant's. They use the lip to gather food and eat, as well as using it for social interactions and communications. Their small, widely spaced eyes have eyelids that close in a circular manner. Manatees are also believed to have the ability to see in color. They emit a wide range of sounds used in communication, especially between cows and their calves, yet also between adults to maintain contact and during sexual and play behaviors. They may use taste and smell, in addition to sight, sound, and touch, to communicate. Manatees are capable of understanding discrimination tasks, and show signs of complex associated learning and advanced long term memory. They demonstrate complex discrimination and task-learning similar to dolphins and pinnipeds in acoustic and visual studies.

The population of manatees in Florida (T. manatus) is thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000, yet population estimates are difficult. The number of manatee deaths in Florida caused by humans has been increasing through the years, and now typically accounts for 20%-40% of recorded manatee deaths. In 2006 there were registered confirmed near 100 manatees in Florida killed by human activity, the majority of these, that happened to be discovered by Florida Fish and Wildlife, have been caused by boat strikes.

Accurate population estimates of the Florida manatee are notoriously difficult and have been called scientifically weak, with widely varying counts from year to year, some areas showing possible increases yet others with decreases, but with very little strong evidence of increases except in 2 areas. However, population viability analysis studies carried out in 1997, found that decreasing adult survival and eventual extinction is a probable future outcome for the Florida manatees, unless they are aggressively protected. Manatee counts are highly variable without an accurate way to estimate numbers, for example, in Florida in 1996, a winter survey found 2639 manatees, in 1997 a January survey found 2229, but then a February survey found 1709. Fossil remains of manatee ancestors show they have inhabited Florida for about 45 million years.

The Amazonian Manatee (T. inunguis) is a species of manatee that lives in the freshwater habitats of the Amazon River and its tributaries. Their color is brownish gray and they have thick, wrinkled skin, often with coarse hair, or "whiskers." Its main predator is also man.

The African Manatee (T. senegalensis) is the least studied of the three species of manatees. Photos of African Manatees are very rare; although very little is known about this species, scientists think they are similar to the West Indian Manatees. They are found in coastal marine and estuarine habitats, and in fresh water river systems along the west coast of Africa from the Senegal River south to the Kwanza River in Angola, including areas in Gambia, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although crocodiles and sharks occasionally kill manatees in Africa, their only significant threats are from humankind, such as poaching, habitat loss, and other environmental impacts. They live as high upriver on the Niger as Gao, Mali. Although rare, they occasionally get stranded as the river dries up at the end of rainy season and are cooked for a meal. The name in Sonrai, the local language, is "ayyu".

Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Sirenia
Family: Trichechidae
Gill, 1872
Genus: Trichechus  Linnaeus, 1758


Trichechus inunguis
Trichechus manatus
Trichechus senegalensis
Trichechus bernhardi (sp. nov.)

Distribution of Trichechus; T. manatus in green;
T. inunguis in red; T. senegalenis in orange

Manatees typically inhabit warm, shallow, coastal estuarine waters. Their natural source for warm waters during the winter is warm-spring fed rivers. The West Indian Manatee migrates into Florida rivers such as the Crystal River, The Homosassa River and The Chassawohitzka River. The head springs of these rivers maintain a water temperature of 72 degrees year round. During the winter months, November to March, approximately 400 West Indian Manatees (According to the National Wildlife Refuge Service) congregate in the rivers in Citrus County, Florida.

Manatees have been spotted as far north as Cape Cod, and as recently as the late summer of 2006, one made it up to New York City and Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, as cited by the Boston Globe. According to Memphis, Tennessee's Commercial Appeal newspaper, one manatee was spotted in the Wolf River harbor near the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, on October 23, 2006, though it was later found dead ten miles downriver in McKellar Lake.

Manatees often congregate near power plants, which warm the waters. Some have become reliant on this source of artificial heat and have ceased migrating to warmer waters. Some power plants have recently been closing and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to find a new way to heat the water for these manatees. The main water treatment plant in Guyana has four manatees that keep storage canals clear of weeds.

Studies in Florida suggest that Florida manatees must have some access to fresh water for proper osmoregulation.

Manatees are herbivores and eat over 60 different plant species such as mangrove leaves, turtle grass, and types of algae, using their divided upper lip. An adult manatee will commonly eat up to 9% of its body weight (approx 50 kg) per day. Manatees have been known to eat small amounts of fish from nets.

The oldest manatee in captivity is Snooty who is held at the South Florida Museum. He was born at the Miami Sea Aquarium on July 21, 1948 and came to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida in 1949.

Manatees were traditionally hunted by indigenous Caribbean people. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the region, manatee hunting was an established trade. Native Americans hunted manatees to make war shields, canoes, and shoes, though the manatee was predominantly hunted for its abundant meat.

Manatees were also hunted for their valuable bones, which were used to make "Special Potions." Up until the 1800s, museums paid as much as $100 for manatee bones or hides. Though hunting manatees was banned in 1893, poaching continues today.

Although manatees have few natural predators (sharks, crocodiles, killer whales and alligators), all three species of manatee are listed by the World Conservation Union as vulnerable to extinction. The current main threat to manatees in the United States is being struck with boats or slashed with propellers. Sometimes manatees can live through strikes, and up to 50+ deep slashes and permanent scars have been observed on some manatees off the Florida coast.] However, the wounds are often fatal, and the lungs may even pop out through the chest cavity. It is illegal under federal and Florida law to cause the manatees injury or harm.

According to marine mammal veterinarians, "The severity of mutilations for some of these individuals can be astounding - including long term survivors with completely severed tails, major tail mutilations, and multiple disfiguring dorsal lacerations. These injuries not only cause gruesome wounds, but may also impact population processes by reducing calf production (and survival) in wounded females - observations also speak to the likely pain and suffering endured". In an example, they cited one case study of a small calf "with a severe dorsal mutilation trailing a decomposing piece of dermis and muscle as it continued to accompany and nurse from its age 2 its dorsum was grossly deformed and included a large protruding rib fragment visible." These veterinarians go on to state that "the overwhelming documentation of gruesome wounding of manatees leaves no room for denial. Minimization of this injury is explicit in the Recovery Plan, several state statutes, and federal laws, and implicit in our society's ethical and moral standards."

Manatees occasionally ingest fishing gear (hooks, metal weights, etc.) while feeding. These foreign materials do not seem to harm manatees, except for monofilament line or string. This can clog the animal's digestive system and slowly kill the animal.

Manatees can also be crushed in water control structures (navigation locks, flood gates, etc.), drown in pipes and culverts, and are occasionally killed from entanglement in fishing gear, primarily crab pot float lines. Manatees are also vulnerable to red tides, blooms of algae which leach oxygen from the water.

Manatees were commonly hunted for their meat by natives of the Caribbean, although this is much less common today.

On June 8, 2006, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to reclassify the manatee on Florida's list, to a "threatened" status in that state. While none of the state laws protecting manatees have changed, many wildlife conservationists are not pleased with the removal decision. Manatees remain classified as "endangered" at the federal level.

While humans are allowed to swim with manatees in one area of Florida, there have been numerous charges of people harassing and disturbing the manatees in various ways, in addition to the concern about repeated motorboat strikes causing the maiming, disfiguring, and death of manatees all across the Florida coast, and this privilege of swimming with wild manatees may be soon repealed.

Disposition and boat collisions
Manatees are slow moving, non-aggressive, and generally curious creatures. They enjoy warmer waters and are known to congregate in shallow waters, and frequently migrate through brackish water estuaries to fresh water springs.

Their slow moving, curious nature, coupled with dense coastal development, has led to a number of violent collisions with propellers from fast moving recreational motor boats, leading frequently to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. As a result, a large portion of manatees exhibit propeller scars on their backs and they are now even classed by humans from their scar patterns. Some are concerned that the current situation is inhumane, with sometimes upwards of 50 scars and disfigurations from boat strikes on a single manatee. Often the cuts lead to infections, which can prove fatal. Internal injuries stemming from hull impacts have also been fatal.

In 2003, a population model was released by the U.S. Geological Survey that predicted an extremely grave situation confronting the manatee in both the Southwest and Atlantic regions where the vast majority of manatees are found. It states, “In the absence of any new management action, that is, if boat mortality rates continue to increase at the rates observed since 1992, the situation in the Atlantic and Southwest regions is dire, with no chance of meeting recovery criteria within 100 years.”

In 2007, a University of Florida study found that more than half of boat drivers in Volusia County, Florida sped through marked conservation zones despite their professed support for the endangered animals, and little difference was found between the driving speeds of ski boats, pontoons and fishing vessels. In the study, an overwhelming majority of the 236 people who responded - 84 percent - said they fully obeyed with speed limits in manatee zones during their most recent boating experience, but observers found that only 45 percent actually complied. "Hurricanes, cold stress, red tide poisoning and a variety of other maladies threaten manatees, but by far their greatest danger is from watercraft strikes, which account for about a quarter of Florida manatee deaths," said study curator John Jett.



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