March 23, 2023 — Despite recent conservation efforts, manatees remain vulnerable to extinction. A large portion of manatee deaths are from human-related causes, including watercraft collisions, fishing equipment entanglement, poaching and habitat loss. The animals also face natural threats like red tide, cold stress and infectious disease.
Manatees are keystone species, making them good indicators of habitat health. These gentle giants, typically found in shallow coastal areas, rivers and estuaries, act like aquatic gardeners, keeping vast meadows of aquatic vegetation in check and healthy through grazing.
If manatees became extinct in the wild, many animals that depend on manatee habitat for survival, including for food, shelter, camouflage from predators and reproductive cycles, also could be at risk of disappearing. This includes many species of fish, seahorses, starfish, clams, crabs, sea turtles and coastline birds. The manatees’ aquatic gardens also contain plants that help filter out nutrients from land runoffs, protecting fragile coastlines, wetlands and coral reefs from contaminants.
Here are some fun facts that you may not know about manatees and what makes them so unique and special.
Manatees live in three distinct areas of the world and are divided up in part to where they live – the Amazon, West Africa and the West Indies. The West Indian manatee is further divided into two subspecies – Floridian and Antillean manatees.
All in the Family
Did you know that manatees are closely related to some plant-eating, land mammals? Manatees belong to a group of animals called sirenians that includes dugongs, a cousin of the manatee. Tracing the manatee’s evolution back to about 50 million years ago, these marine mammals share a common ancestor with elephants and gopher-like hyraxes.
Manatees are herbivores and spend about half their day munching on sea grass, mangrove leaves and algae. These grazers eat about 10% of their body weight each day. For large, mature manatees, this equates to around 850 pounds of yummy greenery per week!
Manatees have special grinding teeth designed to chew vast amounts of vegetation. Like their elephant relatives, manatees continuously replace their teeth. Unlike other mammals, manatees and elephants sprout new teeth at the back of the jaw. These new teeth slowly move forward to replace the front molars as they are worn down and fall out.
Even though manatees may look fat and chubby, they are not very well insulated from the cold. Their large body size is mostly due to their large digestive tracts, designed to efficiently break down fibrous plant material. Without sufficient blubber for cold weather, manatees seek out warm waters, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit or above, that help them maintain a safe body temperature. If the water is colder for prolonged periods, manatees are at risk for becoming cold stressed, making them vulnerable to disease and even death.
As humans, we can replace about 10% of the air in our lungs with each breath. Manatees have us beat and replace about 90% of the air in their lungs with each breath. While they typically surface every few minutes to breathe, manatees can submerge for as long as 15 to 20 minutes, thanks in part to their extra lung power. Besides breathing, manatee lungs also are designed to help with buoyancy.
As a rule, mammals – from humans to giraffes to whales – have seven neck vertebrae that let them turn their heads from side to side. Manatees, however, are one of the exceptions to this rule; they have only six neck vertebrae. This means they must turn their entire bodies if they need to look around.
Don't Hug Me
Manatees are highly protected species. In the United States, manatees are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which makes it illegal to harass, capture or kill any marine mammal. Violators can be fined and even face jail time. Remember, it’s illegal to touch a manatee. If you see a manatee while swimming or board paddling in the water, respect their space and the laws designed to protect them.
How We Are Helping
Morris Animal Foundation has been funding manatee health studies for nearly two decades. Early studies focused on the problem of red tides caused by toxic algae blooms off the Florida coasts. Manatees and other marine animals inhale or ingest these toxins, causing acute respiratory and neurological symptoms, including seizures, which can be fatal. Over the years, our funded studies have helped improve treatments for marine patients in rehabilitation facilities recovering from red tide toxicity, so more animals can be returned to the wild.
In ongoing research, investigators are looking at the causes of mortality in the Antillean manatee, a highly understudied subspecies of West Indian manatees. The Antillean manatee currently exists only in small and dispersed populations across 20 Caribbean countries and is locally extinct in the Lesser Antilles. Findings from this study will help identify factors that continue to threaten this subspecies and inform health and conservation efforts to protect these unique, endangered animals.
If you would like to help improve the lives of manatees and other animals around the world, please donate today. Your gift will support life-changing studies to improve the care and well-being of the animals we love, including manatees, a keystone species that needs our