Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). They measure up to 13 feet (4.0 m) long, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds (590 kg), and have paddle-like flippers. The name manatí comes from the Taíno, a pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean, meaning "breast".
Manatees comprise three of the four living species in the order Sirenia. The fourth is the Eastern Hemisphere's dugong. The Sirenia are thought to have evolved from four-legged land mammals over 60 million years ago, with the closest living relatives being the Proboscidea (elephants) and Hyracoidea (hyraxes).
The Amazonian's hair color is brownish gray and they have thick, wrinkled skin, often with coarse hair, or "whiskers". Photos are rare; although very little is known about this species, scientists think they are similar to West Indian manatees.
Manatees have a mass of 400 to 550 kilograms (880 to 1,200 lb), and mean length of 2.8 to 3.0 metres (9.2 to 9.8 ft), with maxima of 3.6 metres (12 ft) and 1,775 kilograms (3,910 lb) seen (the females tend to be larger and heavier). When born, baby manatees have an average mass of 30 kilograms (66 lb). They have a large, flexible, prehensile upper lip. They use the lip to gather food and eat, as well as using it for social interactions and communications. Manatees have shorter snouts than their fellow sirenians, the dugongs. Their small, widely-spaced eyes have eyelids that close in a circular manner. The adults have no incisor or canine teeth, just a set of cheek teeth, which are not clearly differentiated into molars and premolars. Uniquely among mammals, these teeth are continuously replaced throughout life, with new teeth growing at the rear as older teeth fall out from farther forward in the mouth. At any given time, a manatee typically has no more than six teeth in each jaw of its mouth. Its tail is paddle-shaped, and is the clearest visible difference between manatees and dugongs; a dugong tail is fluked, similar in shape to a that of a whale.
Like horses, they have a simple stomach, but a large cecum, in which they can digest tough plant matter. In general, their intestines have a typical length of about 45 meters, which is unusually long for animals of their size. Manatees produce enormous amounts of gas, which contributes to their barrel-shape, to aid in the digestion of their food.
Manatees are the only animal known to have a vascularized cornea.
Half a manatee's day is spent sleeping in the water, surfacing for air regularly at intervals no greater than 20 minutes. Manatees spend most of the rest of the time grazing in shallow waters at depths of 1–2 metres (3.3–6.6 ft). The Florida subspecies (T. m. latirostris) has been known to live up to 60 years.
On average, manatees swim at about 5 to 8 kilometres per hour (3 to 5 mph). However, they have been known to swim at up to 30 kilometres per hour (20 mph) in short bursts.
Manatees are capable of understanding discrimination tasks, and show signs of complex associated learning and advanced long term memory. They demonstrate complex discrimination and task-learning similar to dolphins and pinnipeds in acoustic and visual studies.
Manatees typically breed once every two years, gestation lasts about 12 months, and it takes a further 12 to 18 months to wean the calf. Only a single calf is born at a time and aside from mothers with their young or males following a receptive female, manatees are generally solitary creatures.
West Indian manatees enjoy warmer waters and are known to congregate in shallow waters, and frequently migrate through brackish water estuaries to freshwater springs. They cannot survive below 15°C (60°F). Their natural source for warmth during winter is warm, spring-fed rivers.
Underwater photo of three animals swimming along bottom
The coast of the state of Georgia is usually the northernmost range of the West Indian manatees because their low metabolic rate does not protect them in cold water. Prolonged exposure to water temperatures below 68 °F (20 °C) can bring about "cold stress syndrome" and death.
Florida manatees can move freely between salinity extremes.
Manatees have been spotted as far north as Cape Cod, and as recently as the late summer of 2006, one was seen in New York City and Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, as cited in The Boston Globe. According to Memphis, Tennessee's The Commercial Appeal newspaper, one manatee was spotted in the Wolf River harbor near the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, on October 23, 2006, though it was later found dead ten miles downriver in McKellar Lake.
The West Indian manatee migrates into Florida rivers, such as the Crystal, the Homosassa, and the Chassahowitzka Rivers. The head springs of these rivers maintain a 22°C (72°F) temperature year round. During November to March, approximately 400 West Indian manatees (according to the National Wildlife Refuge) congregate in the rivers in Citrus County, Florida.
During the winter months, manatees often congregate near the warm water outflows of power plants along the coast of Florida instead of migrating south as they once did, causing some conservations to worry they have become too reliant on these artificially-warmed areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to find a new way to heat the water for manatees that are dependent on plants that have closed. The main water treatment plant in Guyana has four manatees that keep storage canals clear of weeds; there are also some in the ponds of the National Park in Georgetown, Guyana.
Studies suggest Florida manatees must have some access to fresh water for proper osmoregulation.
Accurate population estimates of the Florida manatee (T. manatus) are notoriously difficult and have been called scientifically weak; with widely varying counts from year to year, some areas show increases and others decreases, with very little strong evidence of increases except in two areas. Manatee counts are highly variable without an accurate way to estimate numbers:in Florida in 1996, a winter survey found 2,639 manatees; in 1997, a January survey found 2,229; and a February survey found 1,706. A statewide synoptic survey in January 2010 found 5,067 manatees living in Florida, which is a new record count.
Population viability studies carried out in 1997 found that decreasing adult survival and eventual extinction is a probable future outcome for Florida manatees, without additional protection.
Fossil remains of Florida manatee ancestors date back about 45 million years.
The freshwater Amazonian manatee (T. inunguis) inhabits the Amazon River and its tributaries, and never ventures into salt water.
They are found in coastal marine and estuarine habitats, and in freshwater river systems along the west coast of Africa from the Senegal River south to the Kwanza River in Angola, including areas in Gambia, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They live as far upriver on the Niger River as Gao, Mali.
They emit a wide range of sounds used in communication, especially between cows and their calves. Adults communicate to maintain contact and during sexual and play behaviors. Taste and smell, in addition to sight, sound, and touch, may also be forms of communication.
Manatees are herbivores and eat over 60 different plant species, such as mangrove leaves, turtle grass, and types of algae. Using its divided upper lip, an adult manatee will commonly eat up to 10% of its body weight (about 50 kg) per day. Manatees have been known to eat small amounts of fish from nets.
Overall, predation does not present a significant threat to the survival of any manatee species.
The main causes of death for the sea cows are human-related issues, such as habitat destruction and human objects, and natural causes, such as temperatures and disease.
Their slow-moving, curious nature, coupled with dense coastal development, has led to many violent collisions with propeller-driven boats and ships, leading frequently to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. As a result, a large proportion of manatees exhibit spiral cutting propeller scars on their backs, usually caused by larger vessels that do not have skegs in front of the propellers like the smaller outboard and inboard-outboard recreational boats have. They are now even identified by humans based on their scar patterns. Many manatees have been cut in half by large vessels like ships and tug boats, even in the highly populated lower St Johns River's narrow channels. Some are concerned that the current situation is inhumane, with upwards of 50 scars and disfigurements from vessel strikes on a single manatee. Often, the cuts lead to infections, which can prove fatal. Internal injuries stemming from being trapped between hulls and docks and impacts have also been fatal.
Manatees hear on a higher frequency than would be expected for such large marine mammals. Many large boats emit very low frequencies which confuse the manatee and explain their lack of awareness around boats. Research indicates that when a boat has a higher frequency the manatees rapidly swim away from danger.
In 2003, a population model was released by the U.S. Geological Survey that predicted an extremely grave situation confronting the manatee in both the Southwest and Atlantic regions where the vast majority of manatees are found. It states,
"In the absence of any new management action, that is, if boat mortality rates continue to increase at the rates observed since 1992, the situation in the Atlantic and Southwest regions is dire, with no chance of meeting recovery criteria within 100 years."
"Hurricanes, cold stress, red tide poisoning and a variety of other maladies threaten manatees, but by far their greatest danger is from watercraft strikes, which account for about a quarter of Florida manatee deaths," said study curator John Jett.
According to marine mammal veterinarians:
"The severity of mutilations for some of these individuals can be astounding – including long term survivors with completely severed tails, major tail mutilations, and multiple disfiguring dorsal lacerations. These injuries not only cause gruesome wounds, but may also impact population processes by reducing calf production (and survival) in wounded females – observations also speak to the likely pain and suffering endured". In an example, they cited one case study of a small calf "with a severe dorsal mutilation trailing a decomposing piece of dermis and muscle as it continued to accompany and nurse from its mother...by age 2 its dorsum was grossly deformed and included a large protruding rib fragment visible."
These veterinarians go on to state:
"the overwhelming documentation of gruesome wounding of manatees leaves no room for denial. Minimization of this injury is explicit in the Recovery Plan, several state statutes, and federal laws, and implicit in our society's ethical and moral standards."
In 2009, of the 429 Florida manatees recorded dead, 97 were killed by commercial and recreational vessels, which broke the earlier record number of 95 set in 2002.
Another cause of manatee deaths is the red tide, a term used for the proliferation, or "blooms", of the microscopic marine algae of the species Karenia brevis, a member of the dinoflagellates that produces brevetoxins that can have toxic effects on the central nervous systems of creatures in the area of the algae bloom.
In 1996, a red tide was responsible for 151 manatee deaths. The epidemic began on March 5 and continued through April 28, wiping out approximately 15% of the known population of manatees along South Florida's western coast. In 1982, another outbreak resulted in 37 deaths, and in 2005, 44 more deaths were attributed to the blooms.
Manatees occasionally ingest fishing gear (hooks, metal weights, etc.) while feeding. These foreign materials do not appear to harm manatees, except for monofilament line or string, which can clog a manatee's digestive system and slowly kill it.
Manatees can also be crushed in water control structures (navigation locks, floodgates, etc.), drown in pipes and culverts, and are occasionally killed by entanglement in fishing gear, primarily crab pot float lines.
While humans are allowed to swim with manatees in one area of Florida, there have been numerous charges of people harassing and disturbing the manatees.
The African manatee's only significant threats are due to poaching, habitat loss, and other environmental impacts. They occasionally get stranded as the river dries up at the end of rainy season.
All three species of manatee are listed by the World Conservation Union as vulnerable to extinction.
It is illegal under federal and Florida law to injure or harm a manatee. They are classified as "endangered" by both the state and the federal governments.
The MV Freedom Star and MV Liberty Star, ships used by NASA to tow space shuttle solid rocket boosters back to Kennedy Space Center, are propelled only by water jets to protect the endangered manatee population that inhabits regions of the Banana River where the ships are based.
Brazil outlawed hunting in 1973 in an effort to preserve the species. Deaths by boat strikes are still common.
Manatees were traditionally hunted by indigenous Caribbean people. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the region, hunting was already an established trade, although this is less common today.
The primary hunting method was for the hunter to approach in a dugout canoe, offering bait to attract it close enough to temporarily stun it with a blow near the head from an oar-like pole. Many times the creature would flip over, leaving it vulnerable to further attacks.
From manatee hides, Native Americans made war shields, canoes, and shoes, though manatees were predominantly hunted for their abundant meat.
Later, manatees were hunted for their bones, which were used to make "special potions". Until the 1800s, museums paid as much as $100 for bones or hides. Though hunting was banned in 1893, poaching continues today.
The manatee has been linked to folklore on mermaids. Native Americans ground the bones to treat asthma and earache. In West African folklore, they were considered sacred and thought to have been once human. Killing one was taboo and required penance.
Florida Algae Bloom Leads to Record Manatee Deaths
By MICHAEL WINES
Florida’s endangered manatees, already reeling from an unexplained string of deaths in the state’s east coast rivers, have died in record numbers from a toxic red algae bloom that appears each year off the state’s west coast, state officials and wildlife experts say.
A manatee that had been exposed to red tide came up for air at the Lowry Park Zoo, in Tampa. The tide killed 241 manatees this year.
The tide has killed 241 of Florida’s roughly 5,000 manatees, according to the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and the toll appears certain to rise.
The number of deaths from the tide far exceeds the previous annual record of 151. Most occurred along the lower west coast of Florida near Fort Myers, where an algae bloom that began last fall was especially severe and long-lasting.
“Southwest Florida is an area where a lot of manatees are during the winter months,” Kevin Baxter, a spokesman for the research institute, said Friday. “It’s a warm-water area. The bloom has persisted there for quite a while.”
Although the algae had largely dissipated by mid-March, he said, the manatee deaths are likely to continue for a few months because remnants of the toxin still cling to sea grasses. Manatees can eat 100 pounds of sea grass daily, said Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club in Maitland, Fla.
The state’s annual red tide affects a wide range of aquatic animals and can cause problems in people. The algae contain a nerve poison known as brevetoxin that is not only found underwater but that is also blown through the air when waves break open the algae’s outer casing.
Manatees, birds, dolphins and other animals can be killed by consuming the poison, either by accidentally eating the algae or by ingesting small organisms clinging to sea grass that have soaked up the poison while filtering seawater.
Residents and tourists regularly have respiratory problems after inhaling brevetoxins while strolling on beaches near red tides. People can also become ill after eating oysters and clams that have absorbed the toxin.
Experts are uncertain why this year’s algae bloom was so lengthy and toxic. Phosphorus runoff from fertilized farms and lawns may have contributed, because algae thrive on a phosphorus diet. The Caloosahatchee River, which runs through rural Florida farmland, empties into the ocean at Fort Myers.
But Mr. Rose and Dr. Martine DeWit, a veterinarian with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, say a major cause may be an unfortunate coincidence of weather and timing.
Dr. DeWit said a mild, fairly windless winter helped the algae persist far longer than ordinary blooms, which generally die off late in the year. That meant large blooms remained offshore when the manatees, driven by a search for warmer waters, began moving to the Fort Myers area.
Manatees are attracted there every year by a warm-water discharge from a local power plant, Dr. DeWit said.
“We’ve seen in the past that when algae blooms coincide with manatee movement, it results in catastrophic mortality,” she said.
The red-tide deaths come amid what is shaping up as a disastrous year for the manatee, whose numbers have slowly been growing in recent years. So far this year, at least 463 have died from a range of causes, more deaths than had been recorded in any previous comparable period.
At least 80 more manatees have been killed this year in the Indian River in east-central Florida, where a huge phytoplankton bloom in 2011 killed most of the sea grasses. The manatees there appeared outwardly healthy, but autopsies indicated that they had severe intestinal distress and that their stomachs were generally filled with a different strand of algae that they were apparently eating in the absence of the grass they normally eat.
What is killing those animals is not yet known, but Dr. DeWit said it appeared to be related to the algae and could — like the west coast’s red tide — be tied to a poison.