Diet and Eating Habits of the Florida Manatee

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Traveling to Crystal River, Florida to see and swim with manatees? Are you already in love with these amazing sea giants or do you seek to learn more about what they eat, where they live and how they behave? Well, at Captain Mike’s Swimming With the Manatees, we are always ready to share information about these lovable animals, and we hope you will get to meet them soon!

So what do manatees eat?

Manatees are aquatic mammals that feed almost exclusively on plants found in their habitat. After birth, baby manatees rely on their mother’s milk for nourishment for the first 1-2 years of their lives, with the milk being enough to enable them to grow and thrive. But at soon as they are a couple weeks old, the young ones are taught how to consume plants.

Manatees feed on different types of plants, and usually they just eat what they find. Their immediate environment and the time of the year plays a major role in their dietary options. In a saltwater marine habitat, a manatee feeds on turtle grass, shoal grass, manatee grass, sea clover, marine algae, sea grass and marine grass. But when in a freshwater habitat, the manatee consumes water lettuce, water celery, hydrilla, water hyacinth, tape grass, pickerel weed, alligator weed and musk grass. In fact, manatees feed on more than 60 species of shoreline, floating, emergent and submerged vegetation.

How do they find food?

Manatees are well adapted to obtaining vegetation from various regions of a water column. They are able to reap and munch on overhanging branches and leaves, graze on grass, consume acorns, and even partly haul themselves out of the water to eat vegetation such as mangrove leaves found on the bank. To help them crop vegetation, manatees have two front flippers that they use to collect and pull vegetation toward them. The flippers are able to scoop vegetation and carry it to their mouth, but they are also useful for digging up roots in the sand and coasting along the sandy bottom.

Manatees also have prehensible lips—with the upper lip split such that the right and left portions are almost moving freely from each other. The lips are supplied with seven different muscles which help in tearing away plants. With these muscled lips and front flippers, the animals are able to guide plants into their mouths and manipulate all manner of vegetation.
Although manatees do not have front teeth, they have effective horny, ridged pads located at the front palate. The ridged pads are used together with the lower jaw to break vegetation into smaller pieces and achieve bite-sized pieces that are rolled to the teeth for grinding. With the molars found behind the pads, they grind and chew the food for swallowing. Manatees have 24-34 rough-textured teeth that enable them to chew and grind vegetation.

How much do they eat?

Manatees consume vegetation equivalent to 4-9 percent of their body weight per day. That is an average of 30 to 100 pounds of grass and weeds daily. Actually, when awake, they spend most of their time feeding, usually up to 7 hours every day. These animals eat a lot because most of what they eat has very low nutritional value. Their favorite foods include leaves, grass and algae, but they are opportunistic feeders that will eat any plants they come across, and when they are in certain habitats will feed on foods other than plants. For instance, they can eat clams or fish from nets. In fact, when they can’t find enough plants, some manatees resort to eating small fish.

Do they need fresh water to survive?

Manatees must periodically access fresh water for their survival. So while they can live in marine habitats for a while, they tend to seek fresh water in hoses, sewage outfalls, culverts, and river mouths for periodic drinking.

Do they fast?

During dry seasons and when inside deep water bodies, manatees tend to fast. For instance, in the months of November and December when water levels usually drop by as much as 30 to 50 feet and vegetation is scarce, the animals frequently fast. And because of their low metabolic rate, they can fast for as long as seven months if necessary.

Since they lack a thick layer of fat for insulation, manatees tend to stay away from deeper colder waters. Even as they migrate in search of food and try to dive deeper into the water, they seldom go beyond 30 feet into the water. It also takes them a lot of energy to move up and down in the water so they tend to keep the depth to a minimum.

Want to know more about manatees, their feeding habits and their behavior? Visit Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees website or try a fun and informative tour in Crystal River, Florida.

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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