Fact or fiction? There’s more than meets the eye with manatees

Marine mammals more like sea elephants than sea cows

West Indian manatee. Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Comission

The gentle giants cruising Florida’s waterways are one of the state’s most beloved creatures. On the surface, they may seem like slow, gray lumps grazing on sea grass but there is more than meets the eye with the ancient anatomical and ancestral traits still visible in manatees today.

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Sea cows or sea elephants?

Courtesy: Bart Pepperman.

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So-called sea cows should really be nicknamed sea elephants. West Indian manatees did not evolve from elephants; however, they did descend from a group of common ancestors. Manatees munch on vegetation just like cows, but that trait was actually an attribute of its closest living land-dwelling relative. One of the clearest examples of their relation are the toenails visible on the manatee pectoral fin and the foot of an elephant. Both animals also share tough, gray skin covered in bristly hair. Manatees even have their own version of an elephant trunk. Their prehensile lips are also used for grabbing food, which is another characteristic leftover from their predecessors.

Are manatees mistaken for mermaids?

Christopher Columbus was the first person ever to record a manatee sighting. The explorer wrote that he spotted the mythical “sirens of the sea” near the Dominican Republic in 1493. The folklore is far from fact, but the mistake was made enough times to show up in the manatees’ scientific order, Sirenia.

Do manatees have blubber?

Blue Spring State Park, also known as the Winter Home of the Manatee.

Manatees can weigh as much as 1,300 pounds and grow nearly as long as walruses, but unlike the mustached marine mammals to the north, manatees do not have blubber. Without the extra fat to keep them warm, manatees seek more comfortable water temperatures in winter. Manatees are often seen huddled together either in natural springs where the water is always 72 degrees, shallow canals or near power plants. Winter waters colder than 68 degrees can cause manatees to succumb to cold stress.

Are manatees slow?

Manatees are said to have been around for 45 million years, so it’s fair to say they aren’t in any rush. They usually travel between 3 and 5 mph, which makes them easy targets for boat-related injuries. Many manatees have propeller scars to prove it. Despite their tendency to travel slowly, manatees can travel as fast as 20 mph in short spurts.

Can manatees give birth to twins?

Calves are born every two to five years on average and nurse beneath their mother’s flipper, or armpit. Much like elephants, twins are rare but have been spotted swimming in Blue Spring State Park and throughout other parts of Florida. Calves stay with their mothers for one to two years and can live to be 60 years or older.

Are manatees going extinct?

Credit: River Ventures in Crystal River, where you can legally swim with manatees.

In 2017, manatees were downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act because of a rise in population. According to the Washington Post, manatees hovered on the brink of extinction when they were first listed as “endangered” in 1973. Despite the increase in numbers, the biggest threat to manatees remains the same: humans. Pioneers hunted manatees in the 1800s for meat, and they were hunted again during the Great Depression, when food was hard to come by. Hunting manatees is, of course, illegal now, but there are other man-made threats that can put the animals in harm’s way.

It is illegal to pet or feed manatees without permission, according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Doing so can give them a false sense of security around people and put them at risk of being struck or worse.

To report a sick or injured manatee you can call 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or email tip@MyFWC.com.