Are West Indian Manatees Omnivores?

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The West Indian Manatee is a large aquatic mammal that eats sea grasses and other aquatic plants equivalent to 4-9 percent of their body weight. Nicknamed “sea cows” because of their eating habits, manatees feed on a wide variety of both salt water and fresh water plants such as turtle grass, shoal grass, sea clover, widgeon grass, mangrove leaves, manatee grass, water celery, water lettuce, pickerelweed, musk grass, alligator weed, hydrilla, water hyacinths, acorns and algae.

They feed off vegetation found in all places in the water and even reach for hanging trees and branches with their upper lips. Actually, the snouts of the manatees are well adapted to taking advantage of the various types of plants found in their range. This, for observers, makes it quite easy to classify the manatees as herbivorous animals. They graze avidly and consume huge chunks of vegetation every 24 hours.

Are West Indian manatees omnivorous or herbivorous?

Well, strictly speaking, they are omnivorous—eating both vegetation and flesh. While manatees rely predominantly on herbs for survival and are distant relatives of the hyraxes and the elephants, they frequently eat flesh. For instance, Florida manatees have their diet typically made up of sea grasses, mollusks, worms, crustaceans, bivalves and fish. The invertebrates are usually ingested together with the vegetation, making it almost impossible to notice the animals feeding on them.

To supplement their vegetarian diet, which is quite low on proteins and lipids, and to help grow and maintain their huge bodies, the manatees routinely ingest small animals. In fact, manatees have strong jaws that crunch oyster shells with ease, making it convenient for invertebrates to be eaten together with sea grasses. The amount of invertebrates consumed often depend on the area in which the manatees are located, the quantity of invertebrates in the grasses and the number of grazing hours. Since protein and lipids from small animals may not suffice, manatees occasionally go out of their way to consume larger animals such as fish.

Omnivorous By Necessity

Manatees have evolved to rely on sea grasses. They use their lips, flippers and bristles to grab plants, with their front flippers and their large, flexible lips being quite effective in manipulating vegetation. The manatees grind vegetation into smaller pieces using the ridged, horny pads found at the front of the palate. They break down vegetation into smaller pieces using their lower jaws and use their molars located behind the horny pads to grind food. Due to their low metabolism, they have to eat pounds and pounds of vegetation every day, spending about 8 hours a day grazing (eating), 10-12 hours sleeping or resting, and about 4 hours socializing, traveling or eating.

However, manatees often scavenge for carcasses of fish or ingest any fish that they find trapped in nets to supplement their grass diet with meat. Sea cows are not seals, so they do not go after fast swimming fish, but they do take advantage of every opportunity for easy meat. For example, along the northern coast of Jamaica and in areas of Florida, manatees have been known to eat fish from nets. The animals are usually seen submerged next to fish nets, where they get the fish, take it into their mouths, chew briefly, remove the fleshy portion and leave behind the skeletal portion entangled in the net. Apart from fish, manatees feed on flesh of grouper and carcasses of the flounder.

At Captain Mike’s swimming with the manatees, we love these animals and offer snorkeling tours in Crystal River, Florida that respect and embrace their status as endangered species. We keep our clients informed about the latest facts about manatees and enjoy guiding people through manatee habitats. As a rule, we will not allow you to feed or give them water to drink. We ask that you keep your distance and follow all guidelines for swimming with the manatees. These rules, however, will not diminish your experience and you will come out of the water loving your encounter with the animals.

By booking your tour with us, you can be sure to have an eco-friendly excursion that involves you in protecting the animals and guarantees their future health and well-being. We adhere strictly to passive observation and will guide you to swim with them in a way that neither harasses them nor interferes with their habitat. For more information on manatees, their diet and their natural behavior, 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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