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  • Manatees – Time to Learn More About These Amazing Creatures

Last Updated: February 15, 2023

Manatees - Unveiling one of our marine gentle giants

Deep beneath the surface of the ocean, there lies a gentle giant, a creature that has captured the hearts of many. These creatures, known as manatees, are a true marvel of the marine world. With their large, paddle-shaped tail, rounded body, and small eyes, they are a unique and fascinating species.

Found in both saltwater and freshwater environments, manatees can be found in a variety of locations including coastal regions, estuaries, rivers, and lagoons. They are attracted to warm water, which is why during the winter months, they may be found in power plant discharge canals and natural springs.

Join us as we unveil one of nature's gentle giants - the manatee."

Appearance and Distinguishing Features of Manatees

Manatees are large, grayish aquatic mammals with a rounded body and a large, paddle-shaped tail. They can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. They have two small eyes, two small flippers, and a broad head.

They are often mistaken for sea cows or even beavers or otters, but they are actually more closely related to elephants. One way to distinguish them from other marine mammals is by their lack of a dorsal fin and their rounded tail.

Species and Subspecies of Manatees

Manatees are a unique species of marine mammals that belong to the Sirenia order. There are four different species of manatees that are found around the world: the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the West African manatee, and the dugong. Each species has its own distinct characteristics, behaviors, and distribution.

The West Indian manatee is the most widely distributed species and can be found in the coastal waters of Florida, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. It's known for its grayish-brown skin, round tail, and large size, growing up to 13ft long and weighing up to 1,300 pounds.

The Amazonian manatee is found in the freshwater rivers and tributaries of the Amazon basin in South America. It's the smallest species of manatee, growing up to 8ft long and weighing up to 800 pounds. It has a dark brown or black color, and its tail is more elongated than the West Indian manatee.

The West African manatee is found in the coastal waters and freshwater rivers of West Africa. It's similar in size and appearance to the West Indian manatee, but it has a more elongated snout and a more curved tail.

The dugong is found in the coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region, including the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean. It's the most closely related to manatees, and it's known for its gray or brown color and large size, growing up to 10 ft long and weighing up to 1,100 pounds.

Each species of manatee is unique, and understanding the differences between them can help visitors appreciate the diversity of these gentle giants even more. However, it's essential to note that all species of manatees are facing threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and human interference, which makes conservation efforts crucial for their survival.

What are the Differences between Manatees and Dugongs?

Dugong vs Manatee - Illustration by S. Derville.

Illustration by S. Derville. - Image Source

Manatees and dugongs are both members of the Sirenia order, which means they are closely related. However, they are different species, with distinct characteristics, behaviors, and distributions.

Manatees are found in the coastal waters of Florida, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. They are known for their grayish-brown skin, round tail, and large size, growing up to 13ft long and weighing up to 1,300 pounds. They are herbivorous and feed mostly on seagrasses and freshwater plants.

Dugongs are found in the coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region, including the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean. They are known for their gray or brown color, large size, growing up to 10 ft long and weighing up to 1,100 pounds. They are also herbivorous and feed mostly on seagrasses.

In terms of behavior, manatees are known to be slow-moving and peaceful, while dugongs are faster swimmers and tend to be more solitary.

All species of manatees and dugongs are facing threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and human interference, which makes conservation efforts crucial for their survival.

Understanding Manatees Social Side and Behavior

Manatees are social creatures and they tend to live in groups, called herds, which can range from a few individuals to several hundred. These herds are composed of both males and females, and usually includes both adults and juveniles.

The social structure of manatees is relatively loose, with individuals coming and going from the herd as they please. However, manatees do form close bonds with other individuals, particularly with their mothers and calves.

Females, called cows, form strong bonds with their calves and will nurse them for up to two years. After weaning, the calf will stay close to its mother for several more years, and even after becoming independent, the calf will still maintain some contact with its mother.

Adult males, called bulls, are generally solitary animals, they spend most of their time alone, or in small groups of other males. They will occasionally join a herd of cows and calves, but they will not form the same close bonds as the females.

Manatees also have a hierarchical structure within the herd, with dominant individuals having priority access to food and mating opportunities. Dominant individuals are typically larger, older, and more experienced individuals.

Feasting on the Flora: A Closer Look at the Manatee Diet

Manatees are herbivorous animals, they mainly eat seagrasses and freshwater plants. They are known to be opportunistic feeders, and they will eat a variety of different types of vegetation depending on what is available in their environment. Their diet can vary depending on the season, with manatees eating different types of plants depending on what is in bloom.

In the wild, they will eat up to 60 different species of plants, with their diet mostly consisting of aquatic plants such as seagrasses, manatee grass, turtle grass and shoal grass. They also eat freshwater plants such as hydrilla, water lettuce and water hyacinth. They can consume up to 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation per day.

Manatees have a slow metabolism and they need to eat a lot of vegetation to sustain themselves. They are known to spend up to 8 hours a day feeding, and they can consume up to 150 pounds of vegetation in a single day. They are known to use their upper lip to pull up plants and their lower incisors and molars to chew them.

Life in Captivity: How Manatees Adapt to a Controlled Diet

In captivity, the diet of manatees is carefully controlled and balanced, it usually consists of a variety of fresh, leafy greens, such as romaine lettuce, kale, and collard greens. They may also receive a small amount of fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, apples, and squash, as well as specially formulated manatee feed. It's important for the diet of captive manatees to closely mimic their natural diet in order to provide them with the necessary nutrients and to maintain their overall health.

Exploring the Behavioral Patterns of the Slow-moving Manatees

Manatees

Manatees will form strong bonds with other manatees within their herd and they have been observed sharing food and showing concern for others. They will vocalize with each other using a variety of sounds such as whistles, chirps, and cries, which are thought to be used for communication and for keeping in touch with other members of their herd.

Manatees are also known to be very active animals, they are known to be good swimmers and divers and they are known to swim at speeds of up to 25 km/h. They are known to be very strong swimmers and divers and they can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.

Manatees are known for their slow and gentle nature. They are curious animals and often approach boats and humans, and will sometimes even allow people to touch them. Although they are considered very docile, and they are not known to be aggressive towards humans, it is important to remember that they are wild animals and should be treated with respect and caution.

The Importance of Vegetation in the Manatee Diet

Manatees are also known to eat algae, fish and invertebrates, but it is only a small portion of their diet. They are known to eat fish that they accidentally ingest while eating vegetation and they might also eat fish that come to feed off of algae and other organisms that grow on their skin.

Overall, manatees have a diverse diet and they are able to adapt to different food sources depending on their environment. Their diet plays a crucial role in their survival and it's important to maintain and protect their natural habitats in order to ensure a sustainable food source for them.

How Food Availability Affects the Movement of Manatees

It's important to note that the availability of food plays an important role in manatees' habitat selection and migration patterns. Manatees will move around to find food sources, especially in the winter when the water temperature drops and the vegetation in their natural habitats may be scarce.

Threats to Manatee Populations and Conservation Efforts

Manatees face many threats to their survival, including habitat loss, pollution, and human-related activities such as boat strikes. Habitat loss is caused by human development and the destruction of natural habitats. Pollution from pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other pollutants can harm manatees and the plants they depend on for food. Boat strikes are a significant threat to manatees, as they can cause serious injuries and death. They are also vulnerable to cold stress during cold weather events, which can lead to a decrease in their population.

Conservation efforts are being made to protect the manatee population, including laws, regulations, and the role of conservation organizations. The US government has listed the Florida manatee as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The Florida manatee is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are the lead agencies responsible for the conservation and management of the Florida manatee.

Conservation organizations such as Save the Manatee Club, Manatee Conservation Trust, and Friends of Manatees also play a vital role in protecting and conserving manatees. These organizations work to raise awareness about manatee conservation, conduct research, and lobby for laws and regulations to protect manatees and their habitats. They also work to educate the public about the importance of responsible boating and the dangers of boat strikes.

It's important for individuals to be aware of these efforts and to do their part in protecting and conserving manatees and their habitats.

Responsible Viewing of Manatees

Responsible viewing is crucial for minimizing the impact of human activities on manatee habitat and behavior.

When encountering manatees in the wild, it is important to maintain a safe distance and avoid chasing, touching or feeding them. Sudden movements and loud noises in the water can startle manatees, causing them to flee and disrupting their natural behaviors. Visitors should also be aware of laws and regulations in place to protect these animals, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These laws prohibit the harassment, hunting, capturing, or killing of manatees.

It's also important to be aware of guidelines set by tour operators and park officials. Many parks and tour operators have guidelines in place for viewing manatees, such as maintaining a minimum distance of 50 feet and not touching or feeding them.

Additionally, it helps to be aware of the manatee's seasonal migration patterns, as they may move to different locations depending on the time of year. During the winter months, manatees will often congregate in warm water sources such as natural springs. You should check for updates on manatee locations before heading out on a tour or visiting a park.

Guided Tours and Viewing Facilities

There are various tour operators and facilities that offer guided manatee viewing experiences, visitors can choose from a wide range of options such as guided boat tours, kayaking excursions, and snorkeling trips. It's important to check the safety and ethical standards of the tour operators and facilities before booking a trip. Click here to find out more about the best places to swim, snorkel, or kayak with manatees in the wild, or view manatees in responsible facilities.  

To Sum Up

Manatees are a truly fascinating and unique species that are an important part of our marine ecosystems.

They are gentle and slow-moving creatures that spend most of their time grazing on vegetation and resting. They have a diverse diet and are able to adapt to different food sources depending on their environment. They are also social creatures and live in groups, called herds.

Manatees are facing many threats to their survival, including habitat loss, pollution, and human-related activities such as boat strikes. Conservation efforts are being made to protect the manatee population, including laws, regulations, and the role of conservation organizations.

Responsible viewing is crucial for minimizing the impact of human activities on manatee habitat and behavior. By following guidelines and laws, and supporting conservation efforts, we can help ensure that manatees continue to thrive in their natural habitats for generations to come. So, let's all do our part in protecting and preserving these gentle giants of the sea.

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About the Author

Sharon McKenzie

Sharon McKenzie is an Advanced Certified Scuba Diver who loves to explore the ocean depths. She is an advocate for marine and eco conservation, promoting sustainable products. In her free time, Sharon also enjoys paddleboarding and snorkeling. She has two upcoming diving expeditions to Bali and the Great Barrier Reef, which are destinations she has always wanted to explore.

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Sharon McKenzie

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