12 Surprising Facts About Manatees
In August 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service temporarily closed Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida after more than 300 manatees rapidly moved into the springs. “We have a record number this year,” Laura Ruettiman, an environmental education guide at the Springs, told USA TODAY at the time. “We have 150 more manatees here than have ever been recorded in the past.” In honor of Manatee Appreciation Day, here are a few things you might not have known about these cute, cuddly aquatic mammals.
- "Manatee" comes from the Carab word manti, meaning “breast, udder.” These docile creatures are also called sea cows.
- Manatees live in coastal waters and rivers, and they’re the ocean’s largest herbivores: An adult can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh as much as 1300 pounds—and can consume 10 to 15 percent of its body weight in vegetation each day.
- Using their powerful tails, manatees can swim for short bursts at 15 mph. However, the placid animals are usually content to cruise along at 5 mph.
- There are three species of manatee: West Indian (Trichechus manatus), West African (Trichechus senegalensis), and Amazonian (Trichechus inunguis). The aquatic mammals belong to the order Sirenia, which also includes the dugong (Dugong dugon) and the Steller's sea cow, which was declared extinct in 1768 due to overhunting.
- According to a ship log dated January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus himself said that on the previous day he “distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” Columbus wasn’t the only sailor to spot mermaids in the water. The reason they weren’t as beautiful as he might have imagined is because they were actually manatees.
- Though they can hold their breath while submerged for 15 to 20 minutes, manatees usually surface every three to five minutes to breathe. With a single breath, manatees can replace 90 percent of the air in their lungs; humans, by comparison, replace just 10 percent.
- Back in 2012, a woman was arrested in Florida for riding a manatee. Why the drastic measure? Because West Indian manatees are protected by the Manatee Sanctuary Act, which states that it’s against the law for “any person at any time, by any means, or in any manner intentionally or negligently to annoy, molest, harass, or disturb or attempt to molest, harass, or disturb” the endangered animals. Yes, that includes riding one.
- Manatees are closely related to two land mammals: the hyrax and the elephant. While most animals have a heart that has a point, elephants and manatees have hearts that are rounded on the bottom.
- The endangered animals are threatened by a number of things, including toxic red tide and run-ins with watercraft. According to Florida Today, 361 of Florida’s West Indian manatees died in 2014; 19 percent of the overall death toll came from watercraft.
- Manatees have 2000 thick, whisker-like hairs called vibrissae on their faces, and 3000 on their bodies. These innervated follicles help the manatee sense and explore the world around it.
- The manatee has a smooth brain, and the smallest brain of all mammals in relation to its body mass. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid: According to a 2006 article in The New York Times on the work of Roger L. Reep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida at Gainesville, manatees are “as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate.”
- Manatees are nearsighted and can see in blue, green, and gray—but not red, or blue-green combinations!