Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostrus)

Manatees are aquatic mammals. They breathe air; they have hair; they are warm-blooded; they don’t lay eggs; and they give milk to their babies. "Aquatic" (uh-kwa-tick) means that they live in the water. Because they live in the water, they are different from other mammals. Since fur gets heavy and cold when it is wet, manatees don’t need it. Instead, they have whiskers on their skin, and thick layers of fat keep them warm. The milk they give to their babies is very rich with fat, so the baby manatee can grow quickly and stay warm. Manatees usually come to the surface every 3-4 minutes to breathe fresh air. They sleep on the bottom and float up every 20 minutes for a breath.

Cool manatees facts: Grown-up manatees are about 10 feet long and weigh about 1,200 pounds. They never stop growing as long as they live! Their big lungs fill up with air when they breathe, and this air helps the heavy manatee float. (Their fat helps them float too.) Most mammal long bones have space inside to make red blood cells, but manatee bones don’t. They are solid and heavy, which helps manatees sink to the bottom to eat plants. Manatees have tough, grayish-brown, wrinkled skin that feels like an elephant’s skin. Scientists say that long ago, manatees used to live on the land and eat grass like elephants. Manatees have toenails just like an elephant too. Also, a manatee’s big nose is like a short trunk. Manatees use their nose to grab plants and pull them into their mouth - just like an elephant! Of course, manatees and elephants are very different. Since manatees live in the water today, they don’t even have back legs. Instead, they have a thick, paddle-like tail which helps them swim. Their front flippers are used for steering and digging up plants to eat. Manatees have small eyes, and can’t see far in muddy water. They can smell and hear very well. Manatees communicate by making high-pitched sounds, and leave messages by putting a scent on a rock for other manatees to find.

Manatees are herbivores (ur-bi-vorz). This means they only eat plants like manatee grass, turtle grass, hydrilla, water hyacinth, and water lettuce. Sometimes small snails and water animals will be eaten along with the grass accidentally. This gives the manatees extra protein. Since manatees eat over 150 pounds of grass a day, their teeth wear down quickly. Because of this, manatees are always growing in new teeth in the back, so the old ones just fall out the front!

Manatees migrate. This means that Florida manatees do not live in the same place all year. When it is warm, they move into the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico to eat sea grasses. In winter, the manatees must move to a spring, a place where warm water (72 degrees) comes up out of the ground and makes a river. The manatees stay there all winter long. Sometimes, the food runs out before winter is over. They can live in salt water or fresh water, but if they are in salt water too long, they must find fresh water to drink. Sometimes they will drink from a garden hose!

Florida Manatees are an Endangered Species. One kind of manatee, the Stellar Sea Cow, is already extinct. Only about 2000 Florida manatees are left around our state. Many live in the St. Johns River. Manatees may only have babies once every five years, so not many babies are born. Manatees have no animal predators, but they are in danger from boats that can run over them in the water. Other dangers to manatees are pollution, cold weather (which can give them the flu), red tide (tiny water plankton which poisons manatees and fish), and running out of food in the winter. We can help by not throwing trash in the water and by driving boats slowly and carefully in manatee zones. Also, we should never chase a manatee to try and pet it. We wouldn’t like it if someone was always chasing us and trying to touch us. It is also against the law to chase a manatee.

Resources:

Darling, Kathy. Manatee on Location. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1991.

Save the Manatee Club, Inc. "Manatee Myths and Facts." http://www.objectlinks.com/ manatee/myths.htm. 1/3/98.

Courter Films. "’The Trouble With Manatees’ and ‘The Florida Water Story’ Information Home Page." http://www.xtalwind.net/~cfa/6cradle.htm. 1/3/98.

Sea World. "Manatees." http://www.seaworld.org/manatee/manatees.html. 1/9/98.

Save the Manatee Club. "West Indian Manatee Facts." http://www.objectlinks.com/manatee/ manfcts.htm. 1/3/98.

Provided by the E. Dale Joyner Nature Preserve at Pelotes Island

St. Johns River Power Park, Jacksonville Electric Authority, Florida Power & Light

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