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Manatees: A Gentle Animal

Photo: Mary Syrett
Photo: Mary Syrett

Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals. The average adult manatee is 10ft long and weighs approximately 1000lb. Adults have been known to exceed lengths of 13ft and weigh over 3500lb.

A migratory animal, within the United States, manatees are concentrated in Florida in the wintertime. During warm-weather months, they can be found as far west as the Texas Gulf Coast and as far north as Massachusetts. Manatees are also found in the coastal and inland waterways of Central America and along the northern coast of South America.

The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) includes two distinct subspecies: the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), which is found around the Virgin Islands. While morphologically distinct, the subspecies share common features.

Named for the Sirens of Greek mythology, in Homer’s Odyssey, Sirens were half-woman, half bird-like creatures that tried to lure Odysseus and his shipmates onto an island with endearing songs of love. Later, some authors confused Sirens with mermaids (mythical creatures described as half-woman, half-fish) which eventually led to the naming of the scientific order Sirenia.

Slow-moving, most of a manatee’s time is spent eating, resting, traveling and enjoying life. The animals can swim at speeds of up to 20mph in short bursts but usually lumber along at around three to five mph.
Manatees exhibit signs of advanced long-term memory. In acoustical and visual studies, they demonstrate advanced learning resembling that possessed by dolphins.

Like other mammals, manatees breathe air. Their very large lungs are also used for buoyancy control. The rushing sound of a deep exhale and breathe resembles the sound made by snorkelers. This sound and the associated ‘footprint’ left by a manatee’s tail are clues that reveal the presence of manatees in a particular geographical area.

The creatures emit sounds that are within human auditory range. These include squeaking and squealing when frightened, and playing or communicating, particularly between cow and calf.

Manatees eat plants such as manatee grass, turtle grass, water hyacinth and water lettuce. Occasionally, small snails will be taken in along with the grass. These provide manatees with extra protein.

Manatees have teeth, which are known as ‘marching molars’. The teeth are unique because they are continually being replaced. They form at the back of the jaw, wear down as they move forward, and eventually fall out. Tooth replacement is an adaptation to the manatee’s diet of abrasive plants that are often mixed with sand.

The animals have no natural predator but are in omnipresent danger of being hit by boats. Other dangers to manatees are pollution, cold weather (which can give them influenza-like symptoms), and running out of food in too harsh winters.

Today, the greatest threat to manatees comes from competition for space with human beings. As human populations expand, more and more manatee habitat is being taken over for recreational and commercial use. Human populations are growing the fastest in coastal areas—the same places that manatees depend on for their survival.

Being herbivores, manatees must stay in shallow coastal waters or rivers where vegetation is abundant. As coastal areas are increasingly developed for human use, dredging, wastewater discharge and sediment run-off negatively impacts manatee habitat.

Observed (somewhat) humorously, endangered manatees have joined a long list of contemporary Tea Party favorite targets, along with taxes, high-speed rail systems and ‘socialized’ medicine. Recently, a Citrus County (Florida) tea-party group has announced that it will stringently fight new restrictions on boating and other human activities that have been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We cannot elevate nature above people,” explains Edna Mattos, spokesperson for the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots. “That would be against the Bible and the Bill of Rights.”

If you can figure out the above statement, you have gone a long way towards understanding why the author of this article, a one-time political science professor, took early retirement.

If you take the time to get to know manatees, you’ll come to realize that they aren’t sea monsters at all (as some people claim), but warm, social, lovable animals. For information on saving manatees, write to: Save the Manatee Club, 500 N. Maitland Avenue, Maitland, FL 32751, or call: (407) 539-0990

Joe Zentner walked away from the university classroom on May 7 1991. He has not yet fully recovered.

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