Manatees are the cows of the ocean. If you want to compare them to their land doubles, look at my previous blogpost on cows! They are known as ‘cows’ mainly because of their large size and the fact that they are mainly herbaceous. Their actual name comes from the Taino word manatí which roughly translates as “breast”. So they’re really the breasts of the ocean!
Their closest living relative is the dugong which are also a very weird and wonderful animal. The Sirenia order to which they belong, is thought to have evolved from land-dwelling mammals around 60 million years ago. The average adult Manatee weighs around 1000 pounds and can reach lengths of over 3 metres. Unlike land cows, the female manatees are bigger than male counterparts. The manatees have an especially adapted upper lip. The lip is prehensile meaning that it can grab or pick up things in a similar way to a monkey’s tail. This is enormously useful for a manatee because this allows them to pick up food that they are going to eat. It also allows them to communicate with other manatees. The inside of an adult mouth contains a set of cheek teeth which are undifferentiated. This means they do not have incisors, canines and molars (like most other mammals) but are more like a plate that sifts through food and water. If these teeth become damaged, they are immediately replaced by a new row of teeth which sit deeper in the mouth. This process is known as polyphyodonty and is extremely rare in mammals; only occurring in kangaroos and elephants.
Another unusual feature about manatees compared to other mammals is that they have just 6 cervical vertebrae. The majority of mammals have 7 vertebrae, but only the Manatee and 2 and 3 toed sloth have 6! Speaking of bones, Manatees were once hunter for their bones. Their bones were sought after up until the 19th century because they were used in ‘special’ medicinal potions. The native Americans, who thought manatees were linked to mermaids, would ground up the bones of a manatee to use in a medicine to treat asthma. It was also common for museums to pay up to £75 for manatee bones. Thankfully for the manatee, hunting was prohibited in 1893. Despite this, poaching of Manatees still occurs and is one of the main reasons for their death. This contrasts to West-African folklore when Manatees are considered sacred and killing one would be taboo.
Manatees have quite a long lifespan. Some have been known to live up until 60+ years of age! Unfortunately for the Manatees all 3 species are listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. Sometimes, when feeding, they may get stuck in fishing gear and ingest some of the fishing line. This can cause food to clog up in the intestines of the manatee, causing death. Another impact by fishing on Manatees comes from the boats themselves. It is quite common for boats to hit into manatees which can cause severe damage and can even be fatal.