Why Are Manatees Called Sea Cows?

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We field many questions during and after our Crystal River manatee tours. We love to see the curiosity sparked by swimming with manatees and the eagerness of visitors, both young and old, to learn more about the gentle giants. One of the most interesting subjects of conversation is often the question of where manatees came from, and why we have “sea cows” floating slowly around our Florida rivers in the first place.

At first, the reasoning behind the “sea cow” nickname might seem obvious. Like cows, manatees are large, slow-moving mammals with a special distinction of living in the sea. However, the “sea cow” label is much more appropriate when you consider the manatee’s dietary habits. Cows and manatees are both herbivores that “graze” patiently around their habitat, eating a variety of grasses that appear appetizing.

So if manatees and cows are so similar in behavior, how did one animal end up on land and the other underwater?

Actually, it is believed that manatees evolved from land animals. However, they are more closely related to elephants than they are cows. Both elephants and manatees evolved from Tethytheria, a group of hooved mammals that were believed to be small and rodent-like. Over a period of millions of years, elephants emerged on land and manatees in the water. Surprisingly, manatees are not believed to share common ancestors with other marine mammals like whales, dolphins, or seals.

Another interesting tidbit that surprises many is that manatees are not the only “sea cows” in existence. They are part of a larger group of four “sea cows” in an order called Sirenia. While the manatee accounts for three of these species—the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee, and West African manatee—the other Sirenian is called a Dugong, the majority of which live in Australia. A fifth Sirenian, Stellar’s sea cow, went extinct just about 250 years ago.

With so much history, and such a unique place in the Earth’s biosphere, we cannot let the remaining sea cows see the same fate as Stellar’s sea cow. Visit Captain Mike’s Swimming with the Manatees to swim with the manatee’s and see them as the beautiful creatures they are.


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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