9 Cool Facts About Manatees

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Manatees are large and lumbering creatures, but they are also cute, cuddly and adorable animals with fascinating lives. Uniquely known for their whiskered faces, paddle-shaped tail and broad backs, manatees are warm-blooded (endothermic) mammals that hang out in coastal areas and rivers, give birth to live young ones and nurse their young watchfully. In Crystal River, Florida, the sea cows gravitate to the warm water in Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs as the temperature drops, seeking refuge in the warm water springs throughout winter before moving out to distant places in summer.

So what are some fun facts about these charming creatures?

1. Three distinctive species

There are three species of manatees: the Amazonian Manatee, West Indian Manatee and West African Manatee. All three are related to the dugong, and all are vulnerable and facing the risk of extinction. The threats to their population include boat collisions, habitat destruction, toxic red tides and hunting.

2. Manatees belong to the Order Sirenia

Sirenians are animals in the Order Sirenia, which includes manatees, dugongs and the extinct Steller’s sea cow. They have a characteristic broad body, flat tail and two forelimbs. They spend all their time in coastal ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The most obvious difference between the living members of the Order Sirenia—dugongs and manatees—is that dugongs have a forked tail while manatees have a round tail. The closest living relatives of Sirenians are elephants—manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago and fossil records show a much more diverse group of Sirenians than exist today, with dugongs and manatees living together throughout their range.

3. Closest living relatives

Manatees are mammals just like walruses and seals, which they resemble very closely in shape. However, manatees are not related to these animals and are actually closely related to land animals such as the hyraxes and elephants. Manatees share thick skin and 3-4 toenails with the elephants. Manatees also have shrunken snout which is a shriveled version of the elephant’s trunk. Likewise, manatees use their prehensible lips to grasp and pull food into their mouths similar to the way elephants use their trunks. While most animals have a heart that has a point, elephants and manatees have hearts that are rounded at the bottom.

4. They are the mermaids seen by explorers

Manatee sightings by sailors at sea gave rise to the myth of mermaids. But such visions are now considered as mirage-like hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation, dehydration or malnutrition on the part of the sailors. Christopher Columbus and other early explorers claimed to have seen female figures swimming in the ocean, calling them mermaids. Today, the exact description they provided for the said mermaids applies most perfectly to manatees with only slight explainable variations. The scientific name for manatees is Sirenia, derived from Greek sirens, the dangerous sea nymphs who lured sailors with song, drawing them and their vessels into the rocky shores. Sirenia is also another term for mermaids. Those encounters are presently known to have been with the manatees.

5. Reason they are called sea cows

Manatees are called sea cows because of their fondness for grazing. They also have a stout, cow-like appearance. Living in shallow coastal areas and rivers, they feed on sea grasses, mangrove leaves and algae—grazing on both freshwater and saltwater vegetation. They munch the food for almost half the day, eating 10% of their body weight in plant mass every day. Since the weight of a manatee can be up to 3,000 pounds, they ingest quite a lot of vegetation each day.

6. Manatees don’t bite

Manatees have a mouthful of teeth but do not bite. They use their teeth to munch on seagrass and other plant life. They are big eaters—the ocean’s largest herbivore measuring almost 14 feet long and weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. They spend most of their waking hours eating, consuming 5-10% of their body weight in greenery every day. All that chewing grinds their teeth down, but manatee grows new teeth throughout their entire lives—similar to their elephant cousins. However, manatees grow new teeth only six times during their lifetime. The new ones grow in the back, pushing the old ones out to the front.

7. Small, smooth brain

Manatees have a smooth brain, which is the smallest brain in terms of the ratio of their brain to their body size among all mammals. However, the brain of manatees has similar ins and outs of cortical folds like that of humans and other mammals and boasts considerable cognitive capacity. So the tiny brain does not mean manatees are stupid. And while they may not be as clever as dolphins, manatees can learn to undertake basic tasks, are quite sensitive to touch and can differentiate colors.

Experimentally, the animals have been involved in touch-related and color differentiating tasks with a lot of success. In terms of communication, the gentle giants communicate with squeaking squealing sounds. Manatees do not make very loud sounds, but they are vocal animals with individual vocalizations. They can make sounds to communicate fear or anger in socializing, and to find each other, such as when a baby calf looks for her mother.

8. Manatees need warm water to survive

Warm water is a must for the manatees. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, they stick to water that is 72 degrees or warmer. They have a blubbery size and shape, but do not have enough blubber to keep them warm. So while they look fat and insulated, their body mass is made up of mostly their stomach and intestines. Without insulation, they can get cold stress in water below 68 degrees. That is why, when winter arrives, they move to warm water outputs from power plants or to the warm spring-fed waters in Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees. In 2010, at least 246 manatees died in Florida due to cold stress from the colder-than-normal winter.

9. No natural predators

Manatees have no natural predators in the wild. Humans have played a large part in making all the three manatee species at risk of extinction. In fact, about half of West Indian Manatee deaths are caused by humans due to boat collisions. Manatees are at a high risk because they are quite buoyant and use their horizontally placed diaphragm and breathing to control their buoyancy. And since their average speed is 3-5 miles per hour, they are too slow to escape speeding boats.

At Captain Mike’s, we welcome people to Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida as among the best places in the world to see and snorkel with manatees. When people come to Crystal River, whether to snorkel with manatees or view the animals from boardwalks, our hope is that they find interacting with them gratifying and take that experience with them to going beyond concern to making an effort to protect them and their habitat.

We make sure that our visitors understand that what we do in the water impacts the animals. So we encourage passive observation and interaction with the animals, which means you look but do not touch and only interact with the animals when they initiate it. The animals look cuddly, but you must resist the temptation to hug them—as touching, disturbing or otherwise harassing these gentle giants can attract a penalty.

By practicing good manatee manners, you get to enjoy your time with them in the water and appreciate them more. For more information on manatees and manatee tours in Crystal River, Florida, visit the Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees website.

Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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