Manatees, known by their affectionate nickname the “sea cow” or alternately “cow of the sea”, are said to be the gentle giants of the sea. They live in shallow coastal waters and prefer warmer climates.
Manatees spend their time roaming about, munching on underwater shrubs, identified mainly by their big grey bodies and whisker-covered faces.
These creatures are something that Miyazaki would have conjured up, if they didn’t already exist.
They are called “sea cows”, of course, because they are quite large and rotund (like cows), weighing in at 500 kilograms (1100 pounds) on average for an adult, and measuring about 10 feet long or 3 meters.
Low Body Fat / Need For Warmth
Despite being so large, they have a low body fat percentage and this is why they get cold easily, and so they will often hang around human-made structures like power plants for additional warmth.
A manatee’s low body fat is also why they are found near the surface of the water, or in shallows, as it is warmer there, and so this is also why they’re often spotted by people. Truth be told, manatees really have no tolerance for the cold.
Fresh / Salt Water Dweller
Manatees live in both fresh and saltwater, and can also drink both fresh water and salt water, with their kidneys processing the salt out of the water, but manatees prefer fresh water for drinking when they can get it.
Breathing, Sleeping Patterns
Manatees, amazingly, can take one breath and stay underwater for 20 minutes before having to come take another breath. They don’t sleep underwater, as many have wondered.
Instead, they perform unihemispheric sleep, which essentially means they rest for 12 hours a day, taking naps.
Here is a herd of manatee swimming past some paddle boarders in the shallows of the Wachee River in Florida.
Food Consumption & Size
For the record, cows are technically larger than manatees (depending on the cow) at about 1500 pounds on average (ie. Holstein), but the comparison is still fairly apt, as both are slow moving, grazing creatures who seem fairly benevolent.
Every day, a manatee needs to consume up to 10% of their body weight in plants, which is 50 kg. That’s a lot of food!
Here is a picture comparing the different sizes of the types of manatee, as well as the dugong and the now-extinct Steller’s Sea Cow.
Some people have wondered if manatees are dangerous. The answer to that is a resounding no. Furthermore, they are actually one of the most docile creatures alive today.
You’re more likely to be killed by a single dwarf pygmy goby than a manatee, if you were trapped with both creatures in a tank.
Peaceful or not, just the size of a manatee is enough to strike fear in some people. As stated previously, they are quite large once they reach adulthood.
Female manatees, on average, are usually found to be bigger than their adult male counterparts, and that’s because they have more responsibilities, such as tending to the young.
These baby manatee “calves” (again tying them to cows linguistically) follow their moms around for the first 1-2 years of life, so they can learn where to find food and the different routes they can take to get around the sea.
A newborn manatee enters the world at just 30 kilograms.
Where They Are Found
Geographically, the manatee is found in three general locations according to the type of manatee it is – along the east coast of the Americas from Florida down to Brazil (West Indian Manatee), the Amazon River (Amazonian Manatee), and along the west coast of Africa (African Manatee).
Here are some manatees swimming in an Amazonian flooded forest.
Manatees are not considered to be an endangered species, as such, however, they are considered to be “vulnerable”, which is to say under threat of becoming endangered, by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and this is due to many reasons.
Reasons they are under threat include the fact that manatees are often being hit by boats, as they are shallow swimmers, encountering toxins such as red tides (algae blooms), being hunted down for their meat, and their habitats destroyed by humans (surprise!).
Humans and Manatees
To make matters worse, humans also like to try to “hug” or “ride” manatees, and this, of course, does not benefit the gentle and mostly solitary sea creature who would presumably prefer not to be hugged or prodded by a bald land ape.
One man even got threatened with 6-months jail time for “playing” with a manatee, by taking a baby out of the water and having his daughters ride on it like a small pony while taking pictures.
It is this mentality which makes some humans a threat to manatees, who think of them as sea-dwelling plushies that are indifferent about being removed from the water.
The problem is, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When the West Indian Manatee was discovered in the 1500’s, Spanish “explorers” (AKA hunters) found that manatees were a good source of meat, hide, and oils.
It wasn’t until 1893 that the state of Florida officially banned the hunting of manatees.
As you might expect, manatees are still hunted today, in parts of the Caribbean and South America.
At the same time, manatees are curious, as are we humans, and being close to them, to take a picture for instance, or just watch them, isn’t necessarily going to be a problem most of the time.
Here are some divers taking a picture of a manatee, who seems to be interested in the divers as much as the divers are interested in it.
While some people think manatees are cute, others are terrified of them, as they coast through the water slowly and ominously, just beneath the surface.
These people might mistake their grey ambulating mass for that of a shark, or simply having no idea what the heck a manatee is to begin with. All they know is – it’s big.
Here is a girl swimming in some deeper waters with a curious manatee at her side. How would you react in her situation?
Interestingly, there is some lore around manatees which says that lonely, malnourished, and disoriented sailors, used to think manatees were mermaids.
Yes, they thought that manatees were actually women who were tempting them from just beneath the waves. Who can say for sure if there is any validity to this legend?
In terms of speed, manatees are notably quite slow, traveling at 8 km/hr when they’re swimming casually from point A to point B, or even slower if they’re grazing or just hanging around.
However, if they encounter a threat, such as an alligator, or are being chased, they can speed up to 32 km / hr. That said, manatees have no natural predators in the wild.
Even though they generally take it slow, the manatee has a tail shaped like a paddle, that allows them to swim easily, wagging up and down as they swim along.
They also have flippers close to the front of their bodies to help them steer themselves.
Evolution and Intelligence
There are two animals which are most related to manatees biologically and those are the elephant and the hydrax. Of course, this biological relationship is quite old, as in millions of years down the evolutionary line.
Most people can see the comparison between a manatee and an elephant. They’re both grey, large, and generally slow moving.
Like elephants, manatees are assumed to be rather dumb (by people who are ignorant), just based on their size and appearance, while the opposite is actually true – elephants and manatees are quite intelligent.
Plus, manatees have fingernails reminiscent of an elephant, although those nails don’t really do much.
They are a leftover evolutionary trait from when manatees were a land animal 60 million years go.
But what about a hydrax?
Turns out, hydraxes and manatees are very similar.
Both animals are rotund, both have poor internal temperature regulation and need to stay warm, both eat plants and use their molars to chew the food, and both have complex multichambered stomachs for digestion.
It’s just that hydraxes look more like a rat / beaver / groundhog and live in Eastern Africa. Hydraxes can also “sing”, as in cluck like a chicken and haw like a donkey at the same time.
Here’s a hydrax on a rock, singing just for you.
You might wonder if a manatee is related to a walrus, since they do look superficially similar, but manatees and walruses are not related.
There is a creature called a dugong that one might assume is related to a manatee, because they do indeed look very similar, and yes, they are related.
Both come from an order of a species called Sirenia (as shown in the picture near the beginning of this article), and a dugong is sometimes known as the forth type of manatee.
Senses (Hearing, Eyesight, Touch)
Now it’s about time we mentioned the manatee’s sensory abilities. For instance, they have excellent hearing and can detect small movements from far away under the water, even though they don’t technically have ears.
They do have large inner ear bones, however, and this facilitates their hearing quite well.
For eye sight, manatees don’t have big, expressive eyes like a seal, but they do have good eye sight, although their eyes are small and covered in a special membrane, which is for protection.
Manatees have great “feelers”, otherwise known as their body hair.
Like a cat, manatees have thick whiskers (although not as long), mainly on and around their faces, but also all over their bodies, which allow them to sense what is around them.
These super sensitive hairs are are called tactile hairs, also known as “vibrissae”. They are, perhaps, the manatee’s best defence mechanism against threats, as they are connected directly to their central nervous system and brains.
If there’s any danger about, these hairs can detect it.
Manatees are capable of making a wide variety of different sounds. From squeals, to squeaks, and whistles… manatees certainly have their own language, much like whales and many other underwater creatures who communicate aurally.
Some of the meanings behind these sounds include indicating incoming danger, other social cues such as mating calls, manatee chit chat, or a mom speaking to her child.
Here is a manatee mom talking to her calf. Can you figure out what they’re talking about?
In terms of socialization, manatees are fairly solitary creatures, but can sometimes be found in small packs of up to five or six.
As mentioned previously, offspring will stay with their mothers for a year or two to pick up the skills they need to survive. There is no “alpha male”, but males can get very aggressive during mating.
Here’s a video showing two manatees mating.
Other than the occasional rough sex, manatees don’t engage in combat with other manatees or go through cruel dominance rituals like other animals, including humans.
While there is no manatee social hierarchy as such, but manatees are known to be quite compassionate creatures, doing things for other manatees to help them along and helping the injured. This points to their overall intelligence.
We mentioned earlier that manatees eat 1/10th of their body weight daily, and this grinds down their teeth.
This is why manatees have an interesting biological function which is called “polyphyodonty”, which means their teeth that act like a conveyor belt and slowly move from the back to the front of their mouth as new teeth are needed to chew food.
Other animals who have this function are elephants and kangaroos.
Manatees do not eat meat, at least not much. Occasionally they eat fish and clams, but usually they stick to eating plants, making them herbivores for the most part. Sea grass is a particular staple.
As they dine on plant life, they are slow to metabolize it, accounting for their size. Their right and left sides of their upper lips are prehensile, allowing them to forage better than many other underwater creatures.
Here is a video showing a manatee eating some yummy lettuce.
Overall, they eat about 60 different types of aquatic plants and coastal vegetation, which is then sent to their giant digestive system for processing.
As you can see, manatees are complex creatures and there’s a whole lot to know about them. We’ve only scratched the surface of all of the manatee info there is to know out there.
Here are some websites we’d recommend to expand your knowledge of these fascinating creatures.
If you still haven’t gotten enough of manatees, here’s a cool video produced by National Geographic about manatees.