Facts Abouts Manatees

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You have heard wonderful tales about manatees. Now, you are more curious than ever. You want to know more about these amazing sea cows and are planning a manatee tour so you can see and swim with them. But before that, you are looking for information — for accurate and reliable facts about them. That’s great. So here are some manatee facts.

What are manatees?

They are large marine mammals with a flat tail, egg-shaped head and flippers. A manatee is 8-13 feet (2.4 to 4 meters) long and weighs 440-1,300 pounds (200-590 Kg). With its large, strong tail, a manatee can power its body through water, swimming ordinarily at 8 km/h (5 mph), but also is capable of going at 24 km/h (15 mph) in short bursts, when there is need for speed.

Why are they called sea cows?

In truth, manatees are not related in any way to cows. But because some of their traits are similar to those of cows, they have earned the name “sea cows.” Like a cow, a manatee is a huge, slow-moving mammal. The sea-dwelling animal grazes patiently around its habitat for several hours and eats a wide variety of vegetation that appears appetizing. That’s exactly how a cow behaves, isn’t it? A manatee also lolls and dozes around its habitat like a cow.

What of their relationship with elephants?

It is believed that manatees and elephants share a common origin. Manatees and elephants evolved from Tethytheria, a group of small, four-legged, hoofed, rodent-like mammals over a period of 60 million years. The manatees developed and emerged in water while the elephants appeared on land. But in terms of closest cousins, manatees are part of a large group of four sea cows in the order called Sirenia, which includes the Dugong, West Indian, West African and Amazonian manatee. The fifth member of this order, Stellar’s sea cow, became extinct about 250 years ago.

How are manatees classified?

Their full classification is:

  • Kingdom — Animalia
  • Sub-Kingdom — Bilateria
  • Infra-Kingdom — Deuterostomia
  • Phylum — Chordata
  • Subphylum — Vertebrata
  • Infra-phylum — Gnathostomata
  • Superclass— Tetrapoda
  • Class — Mammalia
  • Subclass—Theria
  • Infra-class — Eutheria
  • Order — Sirenia
  • Family — Trichechidae
  • Genus — Trichechus
  • Species —
    • (a) Trichechus inunguis (Amazonian/South American manatee)
    • (b) Trichechus manatus (Caribbean/West Indian/American manatee)
    • (c) Trichechus senegalensis (West African/African manatee)
  • Subspecies — Florida manatee (T. manatus latirostris)
  • Antillean manatee (T. manatus manatus)

What’s the difference between manatees and dugongs?

Manatees and dugongs belong to the same order Sirenia, but their families are different. The dugongs belong to the family Dugongidae while manatees are of the family Trichechidae. Dugongs have tusks and a tail notch, and they reside in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Where are manatees found?

Typically, manatees dwell in oceans, seas and rivers along the coastlines of several countries. For instance, West Indian manatee resides in the eastern and southern United States, though a few “vagrants” of the species have been found as far as the Bahamas. The African manatee dwells on the rivers and coasts of western Africa, while Amazonian manatee inhabits the Amazon River’s drainage, right from the waters in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia to Amazon’s gateway in Brazil.

What are their characteristic habits?

Manatees are usually alone, but may be in pairs and very rarely in groups. As non-territorial animals, manatees don’t need leaders or followers. So when they find themselves in a group, it is often because they are mating or they have gathered in warm area with plenty of vegetation. Such manatee groupings are called aggregations. Each aggregation doesn’t usually grow bigger than six individuals.

What do they eat?

Manatees are herbivorous mammals that spend several hours each day grazing. A manatee eats up to a 1/10 of its weight (about 59 kg or 130 pounds) in 24 hours. When they are in the sea, they graze on sea grasses. But when they are in rivers, they eat freshwater vegetation. They also feed on algae.

How do they reproduce?

Female manatees are sexually mature by the age of five while males take almost twice as long to be sexually ready. During mating, a mature cow (female manatee) is followed around the water by 6-12 or more bulls (male manatees). Such an aggregation of males is known as a mating herd. After a bull has mated with a cow, it takes no further role in raising the calf (young one). But the cow carries the pregnancy for 12 months and gives birth underwater. Soon after birth, the mother brings the calf to the surface for air. Cows also ensure that calves are able to swim an hour or so after birth.

What’s their conservation status?

All manatee species are highly endangered or vulnerable and facing a big risk of extinction, with the total manatee population projected to decline by about 30 percent in the next 20 years. While the actual number of manatees in existence is not known, the current population of Amazonian manatees is about 10,000 animals while the African manatees are fewer than 10,000. As many as 6,300 Antillean and 6,620 Florida manatees currently exist in the wild, a huge increase from the 2,500 mature animals of each subspecies when they were first listed as endangered some decades ago.

On March 31 2017, the U.S. FWS (Fish & Wildlife Service) downgraded West Indian manatee status from “Endangered” to “Threatened” after significant habitat improvements and a rebound in manatee populations. But the manatees still face serious threats due to their slow reproduction rates, habitat loss because of waterfront development, fishing nets trawled through their habitats in West Africa and the Amazon, and collisions with speedboats. In West Africa, they are still hunted for meat.

Other critical facts

  1. The name “manatee” comes from the word “manati”, which means “breast.” The word “manati” comes from the Taino, a pre-Columbian people who lived in the Caribbean.
  2. Manatees have tiny eyes, but very good eyesight. The eyes have a small membrane that’s drawn over the eyeball to protect it.
  3. Manatees have massive inner ear bones and good hearing capacity, despite lack of outer ear structures.
  4. Their marching molars (the only teeth that manatees have) are continuously replaced throughout a manatee’s life as they adapt to their diet consisting of abrasive vegetation.
  5. Manatees are not able to move their heads sideways because they have only 6 neck vertebrae. So a manatee has to turn the whole body around when it wants to look behind. Many other mammals, such as the giraffes, have 7 neck vertebrae.
  6. Algae usually grow on manatee skin.
  7. Manatees never dwell or go on land.
  8. Manatees can remain underwater for some minutes without breathing. When resting, they come to the water surface for air every 15 minutes. But when swimming, they get their noses above the water surface every few minutes to catch a breath.

Want to see or swim with these amazing creatures? You need a tour provider with experienced captains and a track record for delivering great outdoor adventures for many. At Captain Mike’s we have all the necessary equipment and personnel to make your manatee tour memorable. For more information on manatees and manatee tours, visit the “Captain-Mike’s-Swimming-With-The-Manatees” site.


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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