Naturalist Fact: Manatee

Manatee (Trichechus manatus)


Manatees are large aquatic mammals found in warm coastal waters including tidal rivers and estuaries.  Often called “sea cows”, manatees are in fact more closely related to elephants than they are to cows.  Being entirely herbivorous, manatees will eat large amounts both saltwater and freshwater plants.  Manatees only have molars, which are used to grind up the plant matter they ingest.  In just one day a manatee may eat up to a tenth of its bodyweight, and they can be quite heavy.  Individuals are typically 8 to 13 feet in length and will weigh 440 to 1,300 pounds.  The average lifespan of manatees in the wild is 40 years.


Manatees prefer warm water, and tend to be found in regions where the water temperature is above 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  These gentle and slow-moving creatures will migrate north along the Atlantic coast during the warm summer months and can be found in the coastal waterways near Little St Simons Island throughout the summer.  Manatees spend most of their time resting and eating, but they can be playful as well.  Like all marine mammals, manatees must breathe air at the surface through nostrils, but can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time.


Historically, manatees were often hunted for their hides, oil, and bones.  Being gentle and slow-moving made the manatee an easy target for hunters.  Today manatees are an endangered species, and they are protected by law.  Even with protection, manatees still face a number of threats including boat strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment.  On many individuals scars are visible where a wound from a boat has healed.


While it may be tempting to pet manatees or give them freshwater to bring them closer, these actions may negatively affect manatees.  Manatees may begin to associate humans or boats with these actions which can put them at higher risk for boat strikes.  If you do happen to have the exciting experience of seeing a manatee, the best thing to do is simply enjoy watching it interact with its natural environment.

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