Featured Creature: Manatee

Which creature has a pair of built-in eye goggles, gives birth underwater, and uses their flippers to “walk” on the seafloor?

The Manatee!

(Photo from National Geographic)

A few months ago, I found myself sitting around campus with friends for Senior Week after all the other students had moved out. Left behind was a plush animal that resembled a cross between a leopard seal and a manatee, and it seemed to have a magnetic quality. We kept it, loved it, and began to learn more about manatees and leopard seals because of it. As it turns out, manatees are genuinely incredible creatures! So, without further ado, welcome to the world of the real-life relatives of our plush animal (lovingly named Manny the Manatee/Leopard Seal). 

Manny the Manatee/Leopard Seal

A Good First Impression

The scientific name for the manatee is Trichechus, though some may prefer to refer to this lovely creature as a “sea cow.” There are three subspecies of manatee: West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), and African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis). 

Manatees belong to the order Sirenia – do you have any guesses why? (Hint: the answer is in the root word!) In Greek mythology, there are stories about lyrical sea nymphs who entranced and captivated sailors. These sea nymphs are also known as sirens, hence the order Sirenia assigned to sea-dwelling creatures. The manatee even has a flipper tail that resembles one of a mermaid!

Though some distant comparisons could be made between manatees and characters of ancient mythology, their true closest living relatives are the elephant and the hyrax (a small, rodent-like mammal). Their relation goes all the way back to the manatees’ ancestors, who were herbivorous land-dwellers over 50 million years ago before venturing into the waters of the world.

(Photo: Benjamin Brandt from Pixabay)

A Healthy Diet and Migratory Lifestyle

Speaking of water, manatees can be found in a variety of marine habitats, such as rivers, bays, canals, lagoons, or estuaries. Geographically, they can be found along the Atlantic coast or smaller waterways like the Amazon and Niger rivers. They are typically found in areas abundant with seagrasses and freshwater vegetation within the tropical and subtropical climates. 

Any flexitarians out there? Manatees are primarily herbivores, but they still enjoy small fish and invertebrates every now and then. They have a prehensile lip (just like rhinos!) that enables them to strongly grab and grasp items, like a quick snack of algae. Nutrition is important because these gentle giants need fuel for growth into adulthood, coming in at about 8-13 feet long and anywhere from 440 to 1,300 pounds. Contrary to popular belief, manatees don’t have very much fat, and their metabolic rate is rather low.

The manatee’s daily schedule is pretty straightforward. They eat, sleep, swim, and repeat. Sometimes the daily grind gets old, though, so luckily, they make a big trip each year to warmer waters for their annual migration.

Physical Characteristics

Did you know that manatees breathe air, just like us? When they are underwater, they are holding their breath, until they surface to catch some fresh air. They do this about every 3-5 minutes, but have been recorded as remaining underwater for up to 20 minutes. During a particularly grueling workout session, they will surface every 30 seconds or so for a refresher. 

The mermaid-like tail mentioned towards the beginning of this piece is a flipper that serves as a propelling mechanism. While manatees typically mosey around at about 3-5 miles per hour (mph), they can utilize that flipper to reach speeds of around 20 mph. They also have two front flippers with 3-4 nails each (though the Amazonian manatee doesn’t sport any nails). These flippers have joints and are utilized for a whole bunch of purposes, like directionality and propellation. The flippers also serve as mini-legs for walking on the seabed, and are similar to an elephant’s trunk when it comes to moving food around. 

(Photo by PublicDomainImages)

An Effective Communicator

Like humans, the manatee knows that good communication goes a long way. They are great listeners due to their stellar hearing abilities, and communicate emotions to each other through either verbalizing different noises and tones, or by providing physical comfort. Additionally, manatees have excellent vision! Their eyes are covered by a nictitating membrane (a translucent layer of skin that acts as both a windshield wiper and a safety goggle), which ensures a better protected vision. 

Lifespan & Reproduction 

Manatees have impressively long lifespans at about 40-60 years on average! Despite their longevity, our marine friend has a low reproduction rate of about 1 calf every 2-5 years. Like their lifespan, the manatee’s gestation period is also lengthy! Calves gestate for 1 year before entering into the world. 

Manatees give birth underwater, and mama manatees guide their calves to the water’s surface so that they can inhale their very first breath of air. Within the first hour after birth, calves have already learned the ropes of swimming!

Once socialized and on their own in the world, manatees show their true introverted side. They typically are seen alone, or in groups of less than 6 other creatures. Just like me, they value a small group of close friends over a large group of acquaintances.


(Photo: “Manatee calf nursing” — fws.gov – via Wikimedia Commons)

Life’s Challenges for the Manatee

Not everything in life goes according to plan or is within our control, and this is certainly the case for manatees and other species affected by human-caused environmental issues. Manatees face threats in the water such as collisions with watercraft, becoming trapped and drawing in flood control structures, consuming ocean pollution like fishing lines, and losing habitat to human activity.  Luckily, there is much action underway to protect and brighten the manatee’s ecological future. For example, West Indian manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. And, with the help of supporters like you, organizations like Bio4Climate are working with communities to further ecological restoration efforts and advocate for policies that will benefit species like the manatee long-term.  

For all the introverted beings out there, 

Abby Abrahamson