Manatee Awareness Month
November is Manatee Awareness Month! Developed in 1979 to honor and celebrate these special animals, with their cute squished faces, plump bodies, silly flippers and paddle tail, Manatee Awareness Month reminds us how much we love these wonderful creatures.
Tragically, there has been an unusually high rate of manatee mortality in 2021. A federal investigation is looking into the reasons behind this spike. It is thought that poor water quality is killing off seagrass, the manatees’ main source of food. They are also vulnerable to boat strikes, entanglements, illnesses and habitat destruction. And the loss of natural warm water in their winter habitat is a critical long-term threat. (Read more about issues facing manatees this year here.)
And so, manatee awareness is important now more than ever. Manatees are currently “threatened,” but could very quickly become “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It’s important to educate ourselves on their value, spread awareness, and do our part to protect them (by giving them time and space to live naturally). We wouldn’t want to lose them!
Learn all about these fascinating animals
There are three species of manatees: Amazonian Manatee, African Manatee, and the West Indian or American Manatee, which inhabit Florida, the Caribbean and South America. They are also known familiarly known as “sea cows” (they certainly do resemble cows!), but manatees are more closely related to the elephant than the cow. You may also have heard them called “dugongs”? Although closely related to the manatee, dugongs are a separate species who live in the Indo-Pacific.
Manatees are herbivores, so their diet mainly consists of underwater plants (particularly seagrass) and plants that hang low over shallow waters. In captivity, they enjoy romaine lettuce. They eat a lot: for hours a day, up to 130 pounds of food! They use their flippers (complete with toenails) to hold and guide their food to their whiskery snout. They have “prehensile” lips that are sensitive and flexible, and can grasp vegetation (somewhat like an elephant’s trunk). Like all aquatic mammals, they need air so must surface frequently; a manatee breathes through its nose, which has flaps that tightly close over its nostrils when it dives.
A group of manatees is called an “aggregation.” They are somewhat social creatures; they tend to travel alone but easily form small, transitory groups, especially as they gather together in warm waters. A mother cow and calf will stay together for two years. Manatees communicate through touch, sight, taste and sound (using squeaks, squeals and chirps). They are gentle and playful with one another, swimming upside-down and doing somersaults in the water, (or other silly antics like a face smoosh!).
As winter approaches, manatees begin migrating to warmer waters along the Florida coast. Although manatees may look pudgy, they don’t have a very thick layer of blubber to keep them warm; they prefer water temperatures over 68 degrees (anything below is chilly and stressful on their body). They tend to gather in warm places like natural springs and power plant discharge waters. When the summer returns, they will spread out and travel to feeding sites, particularly rivers and coastal bays and shallow areas, along the southern East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Manatees by the numbers
- Length: Average is 10 feet, up to 13 feet.
- Weight: Average is 1000 pounds, up to 3500 pounds.
- Lifespan: Up to 60 years.
- Population (in Florida): 5,733.
- Swimming: Can reach speeds up to 20 mph, but typically prefers much slower, at approximately 3 to 5 mph; can stay submerged for 20 minutes.
- Babies: One calf every two to three years; gestation is 13 months; calves average 3 to 4 feet in length and 60 pounds when born; a calf nurses for 1 year and stays with its mother for 2 years
How can you help the Manatees?
Manatees have no natural enemies, but sadly, they are vulnerable to a number of threats (most of them human-related). These threats include: loss of warm-water refuges, collisions with water craft, being crushed or drowned in canals locks or floodgates, ingestion of fishhooks and line, and cold weather. What can we do to mitigate threats to these animals and their environment?
- Proceed slowly and cautiously if you are boating in waters frequented by manatees (around Florida and the Caribbean). They are too slow to move out of the way of motor boats, and many manatees bear propeller scars.
- If you are kayaking or swimming and are fortunate enough to “bump into” a manatee (so to speak), simply look but don’t touch. Here are manatee Viewing Guidelines from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
- Support conservation organizations. You can become a member of a manatee-related organization (like the Save the Manatee Club) and/or aquariums (like the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, FL) that raise awareness and money to protect and preserve the manatee and other sea life.
- Volunteer for environmental clean-ups. Properly dispose of trash and recyclables. And always clean up after yourself when you’re finished doing outdoor activities.
- Become a veterinarian or marine biologist who tends to and advocates for the manatee.
- Remain vigilant: Keep up-to-date with environmental concerns, educate others about caring for animals, and support organizations that are environmentally responsible.
For additional information about Manatees
Check out these websites to learn more about manatees:
Read more about manatees by checking out items from the library catalog.