Manatees 101: Everything You Need to Know About Sea Cows

Manatee guide

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The manatee is an aquatic mammal that lives in coastal areas and slow-moving waters throughout the Americas and the West Coast of Africa. Commonly called sea cows, these amazing creatures can grow up to 1,200 lbs (544 kg) but are one of nature’s gentle giants.

What is a Manatee?

What is a manatee?

Manatees are a species of aquatic mammal from the order Sirenia. They belong to the Trichechidae family and are commonly known as sea cows.

Being herbivores, manatees spend their days grazing on aquatic vegetation and are known for their hefty appetites, consuming up to 9% of their body weight every day. It’s no wonder that adult males can get as large as 1,200 lbs (544 kg)!

Their herbivorous diet is part of the reason that they’re sometimes called sea cows but this name also comes from the fact that manatees have a very docile nature, similar to that of a cow. But they’re not actually related to cows. In fact, manatees, and the similar aquatic mammal, the dugong, are more closely related to elephants. It is thought that both the manatee and the dugong share a common extinct ancestor; the Steller’s sea cow.

Despite this, scientists believe that manatees were once land animals that have been evolving for the last 50 million years, eventually returning to the water. They’ve also been able to look at fossils of the aforementioned Steller’s sea cow to determine how manatees may have evolved and adapted to their aquatic environment over time.

Interestingly, as well as being related to elephants, manatees are also closely related to hyraxes. These three animals are part of another group called Tethytheria and all share the same traits as a common semi-aquatic ancestor.

Manatees are often found around the coastlines of Florida in the US as well as in the Caribbean and Amazon Basin. However, they’re also common off the coast of West Africa but in any case, they prefer shallow, slow-moving waters.


Manatee anatomy

As I have mentioned, manatees have evolved over time so that they perfectly suit their environment. Much of this is evidenced in their anatomy with things like grinding molars that allow them to make the most of their herbivorous diet and thick skin that protects them from injuries in the water.

Skin & Coloration

Manatees have very thick skin that can be up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) in some parts of their bodies. This is designed to protect them from injuries. Sadly, they often collide with boats, which means most manatees have heavy scarring.

However, just because their skin is thick that doesn’t mean that it isn’t flexible. In fact, around the flippers, there’s a distinct wrinkling which allows for improved freedom of movement and aids in swimming.

Usually, manatee skin is somewhere between gray and brown for camouflage but quite often they have a green hue. This isn’t their natural coloration and comes as a result of algae growth on the skin which helps to protect against UV rays. It’s worth noting that individuals may have slightly different coloration and this is a result of melanin production from pigment cells called melanocytes.

Another thing to note about manatee skin is that despite its thickness and thin coating of hairs, it doesn’t serve as a way of protecting the animal from the cold. On the contrary, manatees are vastly incapable of regulating their body temperature and rely on water remaining above 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). They seek out warmer waters in winter but as we see in this example around a power plant, such concentrated numbers gather in one area and this makes for a heavy competition for resources, often resulting in death for many individuals. Sadly, manatees are attracted to waters surrounding industrial buildings like power plants as their cooling systems keep the water temperature slightly higher.


Sight is not the main sense for a manatee. In fact, these creatures rely more heavily on things like hearing and touch to move around their aquatic habitat. By coupling these enhanced senses with their whiskers and their eyesight, manatees are able to successfully navigate their environment. However, their vision is not very good and this is largely due to the fact that their eyes are so small.

That said, their vision is perfectly adapted to their environment and they have more rod cells which allow them to see better in low light and murky waters. What’s more, having stereoscopic vision, manatees have great depth perception which helps them to navigate without colliding with obstacles.

Interestingly, the manatee does not have eyelids which you’d think would be detrimental to the safety of their eyes. But instead, their eyes are equipped with a nictitating membrane, which many people refer to as a third eyelid. This thin piece of tissue covers the eye to protect it from damage without totally obscuring the animal’s vision.

Vibrissae (Whiskers)

While their eyesight may not be much to write home about, manatees have another super sense that helps them to detect even the tiniest pressure changes in the water; vibrissae, or whiskers.

These whiskers are located on the face, primarily around the snout, and are laid out perfectly for optimal detection of changes in the pressure of the water. When exploring, this sense is indispensable and helps the animal to navigate.

One of the reasons that this is such a reliable sense is that the whiskers are connected to nerve endings so they can also be used for touch. When manatees are looking for food, the whiskers also serve as a way of detecting objects, especially in darker waters.

The whiskers are also used as a form of communication, allowing manatees to feel one another, an important element of their social interactions.

Teeth & Prehensile Upper Lip

The manatee’s broad, flat teeth are designed for chewing and grinding plants and are perfect for their herbivorous diet. While there are no teeth that grow at the front of the mouth, strong molars can be found at the back, and over time, these teeth move to the front. As this happens, new teeth start growing at the back ready to replace the front teeth once they have worn down. Since manatees often feed on seagrass which is very abrasive, this is an excellent example of how they have evolved. Moreover, even the way that they chew is perfectly adapted to their diet. The circular chewing motion helps to efficiently grind up that tough seagrass.

Another feature that manatees benefit from is their prehensile upper lip which allows them to easily grip the seagrass as they graze. They’re able to move this lip independently which makes grasping moving aquatic plants much easier but they’ll also use it for manipulating other items, making it multi-functional.

Flippers & Tail

Manatees are slow-moving creatures that are known for their gentle nature and they’re simply not designed for fast movement, going at just 3 – 5 mph (4.8 – 8 km/h). This is because their flippers are not designed for speed but rather for easy movement and act as paddles to keep the manatee moving freely even in confined spaces.

These flippers, along with the manatee’s tail are also responsible for balance but they’ll also use them to interact with their surroundings through touch and they’re actually very inquisitive creatures.

While the tail doesn’t allow for high speeds, they are essential for propelling the manatee forward and the animal will move the tail up and down, creating thrust for effective propulsion. The flippers may also be moved in a vertical motion which allows the manatee to control its buoyancy and move up and down in the water.

Manatees’ flippers act as a paddle and have a paddle-like shape. They’re incredibly strong thanks to the bones and muscles but the flipper ligaments also mean that they’re extremely flexible, meaning a greater range of motion. Their location at the side of the body means that they function in many ways allowing for lift, propulsion, and movement.

Skeletal & Muscular System

While manatees are very buoyant, they do have an incredibly heavy skeleton that offers support to their large bodies. The bones in the limbs are designed to support the animal as it swims along with the flexible, streamlined spine. While there are no hind limbs, the manatee has two forelimbs in the form of its flippers.

Manatees have a robust, dense rib cage that offers support and strength to the chest, therefore the internal organs are well protected. This is also another physical trait that makes manatees so buoyant.

Unlike many mammals, the pelvic bones of the manatee are not connected to the spine and are thought to be vestiges of complex structures seen in their ancestors.

The spine is an interesting structure in the manatee since it features fewer cervical vertebrae than other mammals. It is believed that this is due to their low metabolic rate and activity levels and is something we also see in sloths.

As well as a robust skeleton, manatees are also well equipped with strong muscles which help them when swimming. The muscles in the flippers and tail are especially strong since it is these parts of the body that are mostly depended on for movement. In fact, most of the muscle mass of manatees is concentrated in the rear portion of the body, around the tail.

Even though the muscles are powerful, they aren’t designed for fast movements. In fact, manatees have what are known as slow-twitch muscles. These help to control their slow movements and this can be seen as they elegantly move around the water.

Interestingly, while manatees cannot regulate their body temperature through their skin, their musculoskeletal structure does allow for a degree of thermoregulation which is aided by their complex vascular structures.

Respiratory System

Even though they live in the water, manatees do need to breathe air and as such, have lungs much like other mammals and can be regularly seen coming to the surface of the water.

You might think that having aquatic adaptations manatees would be able to hold their breath for a long time but they actually need to come to the surface between every three and five minutes. That said, when they’re resting, they’re able to remain submerged for around 20 minutes. However, they tend to remain close to the surface when at rest so that it’s easier to resurface when necessary. You may even see them floating at the surface performing a behavior called logging, this allows them to keep their nostrils out of the water and remain submerged for longer. When they’re under the water, these creatures are able to close their nostrils to stop water entering their respiratory system.

Now, while humans have two separate lungs, manatees have one lung that is split into two lobes; this is known as a unicuspid lung and not only ensures the most efficient exchange of air but also contributes to the manatee’s buoyancy. They’re even able to control how much air is in the lungs when they need to move up and down in the water.

Digestive System

As we have learned, manatees are herbivores and their digestive systems are perfectly adapted to cope with their plant-based diet.

Once the manatee has used its broad molars to grind up its food, it is carried down into a pouch called the cecum which contains microorganisms that are further able to break down the food, much of which is very fibrous.

Manatees don’t have a very fast digestive system but this is beneficial for herbivores as it allows the food to ferment and for nutrients to be extracted. Food has to pass through four stomachs for fermenting as well as a very lengthy small intestine which measures up to 150 feet (46 meters).

Diet & Feeding Behavior

Manatee diet & feeding behavior

Even though manatees are herbivores, their diet can be incredibly varied. They are largely grazing animals and spend a large portion of their day consuming up to 9% of their own body weight in food.

Preferred Food Sources

The main food source of the manatee is seagrass, although they don’t start consuming this until they are one to two years old. Prior to this, young manatees rely on their mother’s milk for sustenance. They’ll eat different types of seagrass including the aptly named manatee grass as well as turtle grass, sea clover, and shoal grass.

Of course, there are lots of other aquatic plants in the marine environment which they may also consume including mangrove leaves and water hyacinth. They’re also partial to algae and floating plants.  In fact, it is reported that there are more than 60 species of plants in the manatee’s diet.

Eating up to 200 lbs (91 kg) of food a day, manatees definitely have a healthy appetite. Of course, the amount consumed depends on the individual, and in some cases, it may be as little as 100 lbs (45 kg) a day.

In winter, manatees will migrate to warmer waters but they may also travel in search of food. Where there are lots of human activities around the coast, this can impact manatee food sources so they may travel long distances to look for nutrition. In West Africa, it has been reported that manatees will try to take fish from nets where food sources are scarce.

Feeding Behavior

Manatees are primarily grazing animals and will spend large portions of their day swimming through beds of seagrass and aquatic plants, using their prehensile upper lip to grip and tear vegetation. There are thought to be 60 different types of aquatic plants that manatees eat but individuals may show preference for certain species depending on location and availability.

However, they do have a secondary method of feeding known as filter feeding. This involves filtering small organisms and algae through their lips and tongue.

Manatees do feed in shallow waters at all times of the day but they appear to be more active in their foraging during the night. Their grazing behaviors ensure that they get enough food to sustain their large bodies and keep their energy levels up.

Since manatees are not very good at regulating their body temperature, constant feeding and digestion is a way for the body to produce heat and keep the animal warm.

Reproduction & Life Cycle

Manatee reproduction & life cycle

Manatees are mammals which means that live, fully developed young are born which then rely on their mother’s milk for nutrition for the first part of life. The mating and reproductive process of the manatee is very interesting so let’s take a closer look.

Mating Behavior

When you think of mating season in the animal kingdom, you may imagine males going head-to-head to win the female or aggressive copulation that even sometimes results in cannibalism. But there’s none of that when it comes to the manatee. Just like the rest of its behavior, mating is gentle and calm.

Females come into estrus (their fertile period) typically between March and September and during this time they may be pursued by several males. Males will perform courtship rituals which might include chasing, touching, and vocalizations like whistles and chirps.

When I say chasing, the manatee doesn’t display aggression like many animals but rather gently pursues the object of its affection and nuzzles her.

Once males have successfully wooed their female counterpart, copulation will occur under the water with the male behind the female. Typically, these sessions last for several minutes before the couple separates.

Gestation & Pregnancy

Manatees reach sexual maturity at around the age of five and once a female is pregnant, she goes through a gestation period that lasts around 12 months. However, it could last up to 14 months in some individuals. This is an exceptionally long pregnancy for mammals with only elephants, camels, and giraffes carrying their young for longer.

Manatees only have one calf at a time although there are some very rare cases of twins. In any case, the young are born fully developed after relying on nutrition from the placenta whilst inside the womb. The mother may then go another two to three years before having another calf.

Birth & Maternal Care

When it’s time to give birth, mother manatees will typically head to shallow waters as this ensures the calf is easily able to get to the surface to breathe. And it has no trouble doing this since the calves are born already able to swim. That said, they remain with their mother for up to two years, feeding on her milk and looking to her for guidance.

It’s a wonderfully close relationship between mother and baby and the young calf gets everything it needs from the fatty milk which means that it starts to grow very quickly. As the calf begins to get bigger, it eventually needs to transition to a plant-based diet but not without the assistance of mom!

Moms are very protective of their young and won’t think twice about going into protective mode when a threat is posed. It’s also been reported that mothers will literally sleep with one eye open to be on the lookout while the baby is resting.

Normally, manatees are solitary animals but it isn’t uncommon to see females coming together in groups to raise their young.

Juvenile & Adult Life

In the wild, manatees live between 50 and 60 years, and they may have an even longer lifespan when kept in captivity.

But long before this, when they are young, they spend a couple of years relying on their mothers before they are weaned onto the herbivorous diet that will see them through their adult years. This is a gradual process where the mother offers guidance and skills to ensure the continued independent survival of her calf.

Once they are fully grown and independent, manatees will retain the bond with their mothers but quickly become much less social. It isn’t uncommon for them to come together in loose groups for activities such as breeding and feeding in the marine and freshwater habitats they are found. However, close bonds are not typically seen between adults and breeding pairs do not mate for life.

Behavior & Lifestyle

Manatee behavior & lifestyle

Manatees aren’t as intelligent as other marine mammals like the dolphin but they’re still smart and display many interesting behaviors.


The manatee uses many vocalizations to communicate with other members of the species. For example, during mating rituals, males will use whistles and chirps to attract a female. However, these sounds, as well as things like squeaking, will be used in other social interactions.

For the longest time, researchers believed that manatees were silent apart from the vocal cues between mothers and their calves but more in-depth studies have shown that they’re capable of ‘chatting’ with one another. It’s even said that they’ll make sounds out of curiosity and playfulness.

They may use vocalizations to let other manatees know of their whereabouts, particularly among mothers and their young. The pitch of the calf is unique and varies depending on body size and species. They may also use calls for navigation, particularly when they are moving through very murky waters. 

Interestingly, where many aquatic creatures will use low-frequency sounds that travel further in the water, manatee vocalizations are much higher pitched. Some are actually inaudible to humans; perhaps that’s why we thought they were silent for so long.

As well as using vocalizations, manatees are also known to use physical communication. As I discussed earlier, during mating, males will affectionately nuzzle females but these physical touches aren’t limited to breeding couples.

Social Structure

Manatees are not particularly social animals and they generally lead a solitary life. This is beneficial as it better allows them to look for food and graze uninterrupted. But that doesn’t mean that they’re never seen in loose social groups.

They will sometimes form small groups without any strong bonds and this usually happens where there is a greater availability of resources. It’s also common for manatees to band together during breeding season and when mothers are raising their young. Individuals may use vocalizations to communicate within the group. However, these groups are temporary and will disband after the activity is over.

The most obvious social bond in manatees is between a mother and her calf and lasts for up to two years after the calf is born, with the mother providing protection and guidance throughout this time. While the manatee isn’t usually a territorial animal, mothers will become protective when they need to be.

Manatee Species

There are three species of manatees and while they all have many similarities, there are also key differences between them including their habitat, location, and food preferences.

1. West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus)

The West Indian manatee, primarily a herbivore, mainly consumes seagrass and aquatic plants.

If you’ve ever been interested in ecotourism around the manatee then the likelihood is that the West Indian manatee has been at the center of everything. This species has a very docile and inquisitive nature which is one of the reasons it is so well loved by humans with an interest in marine life.

However, it’s worth noting that there are two subspecies including the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus). These robust, wrinkly manatees thrive in both fresh and saltwater habitats (up to 35% salinity) and are the only species found in the Caribbean waters but are native along all warm coastal waters of the Americas, seeking out warmer waters during winter.

Despite humans’ love for the West Indian manatee, we remain its primary threat since this species has no natural predators. However, human activities like fishing (trapping manatees in the gear) and boating (collisions) are some of the biggest dangers to this vulnerable species. That said, conservation efforts are ongoing and include things like habitat restoration, boating speed limits, and population monitoring, particularly with the Florida manatee.

Like all manatee species, the West Indian manatee is a herbivore, feeding mainly on seagrass and other aquatic vegetation. They have a prehensile upper lip that allows them to grasp plants with ease.

This species reaches sexual maturity between the ages of three and five years (with females being ready to mate sooner than males) and perform interesting courtship rituals which include chasing, nuzzling, and vocalizations. Once females are pregnant, they undergo a 12-month gestation period which results in the birth of a single calf. Although around 5% of all births result in the rare occurrence of twins. 

During the mating season, these usually solitary animals may form loose social groups for the protection of their young. This may also be observed where there is an abundance of food resources. Whether in a group or alone, it’s common to see West Indian manatees resting near the surface of the water or moving slowly through seagrass as they graze.

2. Amazonian Manatee (Trichechus inunguis)

The elusive behavior of the Amazonian manatee makes it challenging to study in the wild.

Compared to the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee is much more difficult to study in the wild because of its elusive behavior. Their populations are not stable and tend to fluctuate with the annual flooding and receding of the waters in their Amazonian Basin habitat.

Despite this, humans have still found ways to threaten their populations and this beautiful species has long been farmed for its oil as well as for its meat which is surprising since this is the smallest and slimmest of all manatee species. These activities have led to the Amazonian manatee being declared as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List however, there are several conservation efforts in place that encourage the harmonious co-existence of humans and manatees.

Climate change and calf mortality have also contributed to the decline of this species but sadly, the only country with a national management program, at the time of writing, is Columbia.

Amazonian manatees are not only much smaller than other species but can also be identified by the lack of nails on their flippers. But one of the key traits that set them apart is their ability to independently rotate their eyes, allowing them an excellent view of their environment. Their bodies are covered in bristly hairs and they aren’t as likely to be found in highly saline environments, preferring freshwater habitats with lots of vegetation on which they graze.

Much like the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee is typically a solitary species, they will form small social groups in some instances. Mating behaviors are very similar to other species but in terms of personality, Amazonian manatees are much more timid and unlikely to interact with humans.

3. African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis)

The African Manatee inhabits freshwater bodies, coastal areas, and estuaries along the West African coast from Senegal to Angola.
Ebiojo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Smaller than the West Indian manatee but larger than the Amazonian manatee, the African manatee is darker skinned and has a split upper lip rather than the typical prehensile lip of other species. This allows them to better grasp and manipulate aquatic plant life when grazing.

They’re found in freshwater bodies of water as well as coastal areas and estuaries along the west coast of Africa between Senegal and Angola. As with other species, they may form small groups but are generally social animals and have a gentle personality.

However, despite their confidence around humans, African manatees do face threats from humans including hunting for their meat, capture in fishing equipment, and even use in traditional medicine. This has resulted in the African manatee becoming a vulnerable species although there are conservation efforts in place including the education and collaboration of locals.

An interesting fact about the African manatee is that it has a slightly longer gestation period than other species at 13 months. Calves are dependent on their mothers for a substantial amount of time, but their behaviors are difficult to study as their habitats are not as accessible as those of the West Indian manatee.

Are Dugongs Related to Manatees?

Are dugongs related to manatees?

Many people are confused about whether the manatee is the same as the dugong. While these creatures are both from the Sirenia order and have some similarities as well as a common ancestor, they are not the same. Manatees are from the Trichechidae family, while dugongs belong to the Dungongidae family.

Dugongs (Dugong dugon) tend to be much smaller than manatees, weighing around 550 – 600 lbs (249 – 272 kg), and have a far more streamlined body. Their tails are also fluked, more like a whale than the paddle-shaped tail of the manatee.

Manatees can be found in a greater range of habitats including coastal waters, estuaries, and freshwater habitats while the dugong prefers shallower waters like reefs and mangroves. Moreover, dugongs are far more widely distributed, found across the Indo-Pacific region.

Both species have a herbivorous diet but the dugong is far more heavily reliant on seagrasses whereas manatees have a more versatile diet.


Threats facing manatees

All species of manatees are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and they face a variety of threats including hunting, habitat loss, pollution, and many others.


Pollution is a serious threat to manatees with oil spills being one of the most significant problems since many ships have spillages in the coastal habitat of the manatee. When this happens, the oil can coat the hairs on the manatee’s body, affecting their buoyancy. What’s more, where aquatic vegetation is covered in oil, this can be ingested by the manatees which causes poisoning and ultimately, death.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the largest recorded spill) in the Gulf of Mexico had a profound impact on manatee populations and the seagrass availability was reduced due to oil exposure. Although clean-up efforts were made, this still left a lasting impression on the environment here.

But it isn’t just oil that’s the problem. Debris, primarily plastic, is a threat to many marine species, including the manatee. Things like pieces of plastic from fishing equipment, plastic bags, and unrecycled waste. Not only can animals become tangled within larger pieces of plastic but smaller pieces can be ingested. Ingestion is likely to cause death but even in cases where the manatee survives, these ingested materials can cause ongoing health problems including reproductive issues, respiratory conditions, and immune system problems. The more that manatees are exposed to these things, the more likely it is that their numbers will continue to decline.

Oil is just one type of contaminant that can affect the quality of the aquatic vegetation manatees rely on for nutrition. Chemicals that end up in the water such as heavy metals and pesticides have the same effect, eventually accumulating in the manatees’ tissues. Moreover, these contaminants can result in algal blooms which interfere with habitat quality and the loss of important seagrasses. As a result, thousands of manatees are starving each year. This is particularly problematic in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida where contaminants have decreased water quality and, as such, seagrass in this area has also become less abundant.

Illegal Hunting & Fishing

When you think about illegal hunting and fishing, the manatee may not be the first creature that comes to mind. But the reality of the situation is that, for hundreds of years, manatees have been hunted for various reasons including their meat, bones, oil, and hides for use as food and in traditional medicine.

This is actually one of the biggest threats to their survival coupled with the fact that they’re often accidentally caught up in commercial fishing gear. Even where death doesn’t occur, individuals who are trapped sustain injuries which may lead to decreased health and eventual death.

While it is illegal, in many areas, to hunt manatees or harass them in any way, activities still continue particularly in less developed countries. For example, in places like Belize, South America, there are many incidents of illegal gillnet fishing which results in the entrapment of manatees and as such, there has been a notable decline in their populations. Policing laws surrounding the hunting of manatees can be very challenging and we also have to consider that, in many regions, there is a lack of understanding about the effects of manatee hunting. Moreover, in areas where education has not been offered, it’s not uncommon for humans to believe that manatees are competition for fishing businesses and so catching them is seen to eliminate this problem; despite the fact that manatees do not actually consume fish. 

Not only are numbers reduced because of these activities but the reproductive rate of the manatee simply cannot keep up with the loss of numbers. Individuals are often killed at breeding age which makes it difficult for populations to recover quickly.

Boat Strikes

Being in the water comes with the threat of colliding with boats and this is one of the biggest issues faced by the manatee. Whether it is an injury or a fatality, there’s no doubt that boat strikes are affecting manatee populations.

However, this is primarily accidental because manatees are such slow-moving and quiet creatures that boat operators struggle to see them. Where the manatee is concerned, it’s not merely a case of not being able to move out of the way quickly enough, scientists now believe that they don’t hear the boats coming in the first place. 

In one year alone, more than 590 manatee deaths were recorded as a result of boat collisions in Florida, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As with hunting, the incidents occur so often that it is difficult for manatees to breed quickly enough to recover their population.

In some instances, the manatee isn’t killed upon colliding with a boat but many individuals can be seen with scars caused by propellers and other boat parts, some may even sustain serious injuries like limb amputation. Naturally, the loss of limbs affects the individual’s ability to swim and this can be detrimental to their survival. Studies have shown that one in four adult manatee deaths could have been caused by a boat strike.

Habitat Loss & Degradation

Many of the issues I have discussed result in the loss of manatee habitat, including human activities and pollution. Manatees prefer to live in warmer waters and will actively seek these out, however, many of these warm-water habitats are being destroyed, not to mention the impact of various factors on seagrass beds which manatees rely on for feeding.

Habitat loss is one of the leading threats to the manatee and humans are largely to blame, especially when we consider the amount of coastal development. Things like waterfront properties, marinas, and other infrastructure are encroaching on manatee territory and they are often being built on areas where seagrass is abundant, reducing food availability for these wonderful animals.

Where waterfront development takes place, the flow of water is often redirected or disrupted using navigation channels. Dredging is a great example of this and the creation of navigation channels actually changes the water current which has a direct impact on the distribution of seagrass. This then impacts the movement of manatees causing them to have to enter waters that they usually wouldn’t and that may not be as suitable to their lifestyle and survival.

Even where seagrass beds remain intact, their quality is all too often reduced by coastal development as well as things like overfishing and chemical pollution. And it doesn’t have to be that large areas are lost. In some cases, portions of manatee habitat are destroyed, resulting in fragmentation. This poses a problem in terms of food resources but also divides populations meaning that manatees are not as easily able to find a mate and this impacts reproductive ability. 

I mentioned that manatees require a warm water habitat because of their lack of body fat, but this is often destroyed because of human interference. For example, manatees are known to frequent warm springs but these are often affected, decreasing the number of suitable refuges, especially during winter. Of course, climate change can also be to blame, and changes to sea temperatures can also impact the growth of seagrass. This has caused some manatee populations to resort to eating more algae, and scientists are concerned about the associated health implications of this becoming their primary food source.

Conservation Efforts

Manatee conservation efforts

While the manatee does face an alarming number of threats, hope is not lost. In fact, there are several efforts in place to protect the manatee and prevent its population from deteriorating further. With a combination of monitoring, research, protective legislation, habitat restoration, and more, there’s hope that manatee populations will begin to flourish once again.

Research & Monitoring

Without knowing exactly what is going on in the world of the manatee, we have no hope of saving these beautiful creatures. Therefore, one of the first, and most important, steps in protecting them comes in the form of research and monitoring.

By continuing to monitor manatees, we are better able to understand their behaviors and how they are affected by the threats they face. From here, we’re then better able to come up with effective conservation strategies. Regular behavioral studies are taking place that show us how manatees are moving and migrating through the use of satellite tracking.

Population surveys are regularly taken to keep an eye on how many individuals are in a certain area, but individuals are also tracked using things like aerial surveys, satellites, and photo identification. In Florida, aerial surveys often take place to keep track of populations, and this information is imperative for conservation planning teams. Moreover, research like this allows us to see where most manatees are concentrated and has shown that around 70% of the Florida population is concentrated in one place. 

It’s also essential that we monitor the health of manatee populations as this can tell us a lot about how certain environmental factors impact them. Teams of vets are often employed to assess the health of populations as well as perform individual examinations. Similarly, genetic studies are taking place to understand breeding (including inbreeding), which has led to decisions over translocations that can help to bring greater genetic diversity to certain manatee communities.

It’s also vital that we’re looking at how human interaction affects manatees especially when we consider the amount of tourism in areas with high manatee populations and things like the risk of boat collisions. As a direct result of this type of research, speed limits for watercraft have been put into place in what is known as Manatee Speed Zones.

Researchers are also keeping an eye on manatee habitat, monitoring the abundance of seagrass as well as the availability of warm water habitats. By looking at these things, conservationists are able to identify areas that are most in need of protection. Things like climate change can impact habitat availability for manatees and as such, researchers are constantly monitoring the effects of climate change on their habitat.

But it’s not just scientists that are essential to this research. Communities are also getting involved by making observations and recording their findings. This can include things like recording sightings and accidents involving manatees which is also a great way to raise awareness of their plight. As new information comes in, management strategies can be implemented or altered accordingly.

Habitat Protection & Restoration

Since habitat loss is one of the main threats to manatees, protecting and restoring lost habitat is one of the most important aspects of conservation. Without this aspect of conservation, manatees would be unable to survive because of a lack of natural resources.

Seagrass is the primary food for manatees and protecting areas where it grows is incredibly important to ensure that they have adequate resources. This includes efforts to restore seagrass habitats and grazing grounds such as those in Kings Bay, Florida where algae has damaged the local seagrass. In places where seagrass is not in abundance, programs are in place to replace manatee food sources with experimental programs offering alternatives like lettuce.

Where natural habitats cannot be fully protected or restored, manatee sanctuaries have been created which are areas within the natural habitat that are completely free from human interference such as the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. This ensures a greater opportunity for feeding and breeding with more than $30 million being dedicated to this type of work in Florida alone. Moreover, conservationists are working hard to obtain coastal properties and land so that further development cannot take place. Where this isn’t possible, measures are put in place to limit development and where development is needed, it is designed to be as wildlife-friendly as possible.

Without warm waters, manatees would struggle to survive during the colder seasons so conservation efforts are in place to protect these warm water habitats. While it may be surprising, considering their environmental impact, power plants are protected because their cooling systems warm the waters around them and there are many measures in place to protect these areas.

As with research and monitoring, it’s essential that local communities get involved in the restoration of manatee habitat. This raises awareness but also gives locals a sense of responsibility towards their local wildlife. And this isn’t just within the local community but extends globally whereby international organizations come together for collaborative efforts to protect manatee habitat.

A great example of how communities can get involved is through beach clean-ups which anyone can get involved in.

Boat Strike Mitigation

Preventing manatee boat collisions is imperative to their survival and boat speed limit zones have been implemented which is a strategy that has been proven to reduce the risk of boat strikes. These speed limits have been imposed in areas where manatee populations are high and may be between 3 and 9 mph (4.8 and 14 km/h) and may be enforced during important periods such as migration and breeding season.

As well as speed limits, waterway signs have been installed warning boaters about the presence of manatees and the importance of slowing down and being aware. But this may not be enough so there are many educational campaigns and guidelines in place that help to raise awareness of acknowledging and adhering to signs.

Since we live in the digital age, the use of AR has come in incredibly handy and is used to simulate situations as a way of educating boaters and boating communities on what may happen in the event of a manatee collision. Moreover, these resources also educate on how boat strikes can affect manatee populations.

Further technological advances include sonar systems and acoustic devices that can be placed under the water to detect manatees and warn boat operators in order that they can avoid a collision. There’s even the potential to have these devices connected to a smartphone app for ease of use and real-time updates. Locals are also encouraged to report strikes and record data which can help conservationists to better understand boat strike patterns.

But all of these efforts would be in vain if there weren’t legal ramifications for those who don’t adhere to things like boat speed limits. For this reason, enforcement of the law is taken very seriously and, in some cases, individuals discovered to be breaking it could be hit with fines of up to $50,000.

Rehabilitation & Rescue Programs

Concentrating on the rehabilitation of individual manatees is important as a collective effort to restore the greater population. Since manatees may be faced with several threats, including injuries, health issues as a result of pollution, and habitat loss, it’s vital that they’re taken care of individually.

For example, conservationists are collaborating with local wildlife rehab centers that can offer specialized care to individuals who are injured, sick, or otherwise compromised. Acting quickly upon the discovery of injured or orphaned manatees means a greater chance of individual survival. These manatees can be taken care of by specialist veterinarians and then released back into the wild, where possible, with some teams releasing as many as 12 a day back into their natural habitat. Oftentimes, these releases will be a public event, which is a great way to raise awareness and educate locals on the plight of the manatee. 

But it takes great care and knowledge to safely transport individuals from the wild to a place of care and, as such, rescue teams are employed to delicately remove injured individuals to a place of safety without creating further injury or stress to the animal. Once at a sanctuary, vets can carry out tests such as taking blood samples and X-rays to ensure the correct treatment is given.

During the manatee’s stay at a rehabilitation center, the individual will not only benefit from access to specialized medical care but also other facilities like pools that replicate their natural habitat, encouraging them to continue their natural behaviors so that they don’t ‘forget’ how to survive in the wild. They may also be offered tailored nutrition programs to ensure optimal health and growth, especially for orphaned manatees, and pools are equipped with naturally growing seagrass which mimics their diet in the wild.

Outside of just helping to care for and rehabilitate manatees, these types of projects also monitor populations to properly understand their biology and behaviors even after their release. This may be done through the aid of tracking devices and other forms of technology. Moreover, both during and after the rehabilitation, scientists are able to learn about manatee behavior, further enhancing our understanding of these magnificent animals.

Ecotourism & Sustainable Practices

Humans have always had a fascination with the animal kingdom and this has got to be a good thing because it gives us the chance to learn more about manatees and the threats that they face. However, it is vital that we approach this using sustainable practices and this is where ecotourism comes in.

With large manatee populations in Florida, this is the only place in the world where it is legal to swim with manatees in their natural environment. However, many bad practices have been reported including humans forcing the manatee into shallow shoreline waters and surrounding it so they can touch it. While this might seem like the stuff of dreams, it’s nothing short of a nightmare for a wild animal. 

This is why it’s vital that sustainable tourism is encouraged and even enforced, giving people the chance to learn more about these creatures without putting any unnecessary stress on them. What’s more, the proceeds from this type of tourism can be spent on restoring habitat and protecting manatees.

There are many boat tours that allow humans to get up close with the manatee but there are strict guidelines on how these must be conducted in a way that poses as little disturbance to the manatees as possible. During these tours, guides offer education on how to behave responsibly around manatees, the challenges they face, and what we can do to ensure their survival.

Moreover, viewing zones are being put in place for humans to be able to observe manatees without actually having to encroach on their territory which serves as a great way to learn more about them while remaining eco-friendly. These viewing zones are often created so that boats can take anchor but are placed outside of manatee habitat.

While tourists are encouraged to learn more about the manatee, there are regulations in place that decrease the chances of negative impacts on the species as a result of tourism. For example, in Florida, tourists are asked to ‘look but not touch’. Before the start of any tour, strict instructions are given to tourists to minimize human impact. When choosing a manatee tour, it is advisable to opt for a company that offers a certified program, as you have the peace of mind that they are adhering to sustainable practices. This not only includes showing respect for the manatees up close but could also include things like using solar-powered watercraft, waste reduction policies, and the use of eco-friendly infrastructure.

And it isn’t just tourists that can get involved; there’s a significant focus on educating those who live in the local area and involving the community in what’s going on. This may include the creation of jobs, money being donated to community projects, and education, as well as other things. What’s more, profits from ecotourism often go towards conservation projects such as research, habitat protection, and rehabilitation.

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