Florida Manatees are typically found in shallow and slow-moving rivers, estuaries, and coastal areas. They are known to migrate long distances, and in Florida they can be found all along the coast, and in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Winter, Manatees can be found moving into the warm waters of inland springs, which provide an abundant food source for the manatees in the cold months. The Florida springs pump out water that stays a consistent 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. A very warm temperature for a Manatee, but very cold for the humans who come to swim with them. The migration patterns of Manatees are closely monitored by scientists, who use this information to better understand how we can protect the Manatees’ natural habitat.
What are Manatees?
What is a Manatee? Manatees, also known as “Sea Cows”, are actually not related to cows in any way. Their closest living land relative is the Elephant! Like an elephant’s trunk, manatees have lips that they use for grasping food. Their lips are prehensile, meaning they have the ability to grasp things with them. Manatees are also herbivorous, meaning they only eat vegetation. Typically they graze on sea grasses and water lettuce for about 4-5 hours each day. Although Manatees are aquatic, they still have to come to the surface to breathe. However, when resting, Manatees can hold their breathe for up to 20 minutes.
Manatees have a round, plump body that is covered in wrinkled skin and small hairs called vibrissae, which they use to help them “see” their surroundings better. Manatee skin (like Elephant skin) feels rough and leathery, and it is usually a grayish-brown color. Manatees can weigh up to 1200 pounds and can grow up to 13 feet in length (about as long as a minivan). They have small eyes, located on the sides of their heads, which are specially adapted for murky water. They also have a large, round, and flat tail, known as a fluke, which they use to propel themselves through the water.
Manatees are social animals that are known to form groups called aggregations or herds. These groups can consist of anywhere from a few individuals to over a hundred. Manatees are not territorial and they show cooperative and affectionate social behavior, often touching and nuzzling each other in a gesture of companionship. These gentle giants are also known to form bonds with other species, such as dolphins and humans, and will sometimes seek interactions with them. Overall, the social structures of manatees demonstrate their capacity for social connection and empathy.
Manatees are herbivores and primarily feed on seagrasses, which provides the necessary nutrients for their diet. However, the degradation of seagrass beds due to human activities, pollution, and habitat destruction Manatees will also seek other vegetation. Manatees have been observed feeding on a particular type of lettuce called “water lettuce.” Water lettuce is a floating aquatic plant that is abundant in many of the areas where Manatees live, and it is a good source of nutrients for them. While lettuce may not be their favorite, it is a good option for them when seagrasses are not available. The Manatee digestive system is specially adapted for their plant-filled lifestyle. They have an extra long digestive tract that allows them to extract as much nutrients as possible from the hard-to-digest vegetation. Due to their slow metabolism, food sits in their digestive system for sometimes up to seven days.
Manatees have a slow reproductive rate, meaning that female Manatees typically give birth to one baby, called a calf, every 2-5 years. Once Manatees breed and part ways, the gestation period for a Manatee is about 13 months. Once the calf is born, the mother will nurse it for about 1-2 year. Manatee calves nurse from milk glands which are located near the mother’s armpits. During the time the calf and mother are together, the mother will provide her calf with all the necessary nutrients for growth and development. Manatee calves can grow very quickly, gaining up to 1-2 pounds per day. They are born weighing around 60-70 pounds. The calf will stay with its mother until it reaches maturity, which can take up to 5 years.
Manatees face a number of challenges for their species. Some of the biggest threats are habitat loss and starvation as development and pollution continue to encroach upon their natural habitats. Additionally, manatees are highly susceptible to boat strikes, as they are slow-moving and often surface to breathe, putting them at risk of being hit by a boat. Boaters often ignore important waterway signs and accidentally strike Manatees, since they were not paying attention. The availability of food can be a challenge, as seagrass beds, a primary food source for manatees, are declining due to pollution run off, and the accidental destruction of grass beds. Changing weather patterns can cause harmful algal blooms, and strand manatees away from warm water, which can lead to illness and death. All of these factors highlight the need for ongoing conservation efforts to protect these beloved animals.
The Florida Manatee is currently critically endangered, with as few as 4500 manatees left in the world. The population of Florida Manatees is rapidly declining, and over the past two years, the population has declined by over 24%. In 2021 Manatees lost 10% of the total population, and in 2022, unfortunately, 719 Manatees died mostly due to starvation. Unless changes are made immediately, Manatees could eventually become extinct. Luckily, there are things you can do to help the Manatee population and help assist the researchers doing important work to help save the Manatees.
How to Help
Here are some things you can do to help save the Manatees! Reduce your pollution. Help pick up any trash that you see! This is an easy way to keep dangerous objects away from Manatees, so they do not accidentally ingest it. Also avoid pesticides and fertilizers in your yard. Pesticides and fertilizers drain into lakes and rivers in run off, causing dangerous chemicals to pollute waterways, causing deadly algae blooms, and destroying precious Manatee sea grass beds and other food sources. Practice safe boating. Unsafe boating causes deadly Manatee boat strikes and can destroy important Manatee sea grass beds. It is important to follow all boating rules and regulations and follow all posted signs. Wearing polarized sunglasses can help you spot manatees from boats. Give Manatees space and do not feed them! Manatees, just like any other animals or person, need space and deserve respect. It is important to give the Manatees plenty of space when we are swimming or boating in their habitats. Manatees are curious and friendly creatures, but they also need space to feel safe and comfortable. Petting Manatees is not respectful and can make them feel unsafe. Feeding Manatees is also unsafe for Manatees. It is important that Manatees do not rely on people for food. By feeding Manatees, they become reliant on humans for food, meaning they would struggle to search for food on their own, and may lead them to associate people and boats as food sources, putting them at risk of getting struck by a boat, which could lead to death.