Manatee Facts for Kids
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What is a manatee?
A Manatee is a marine mammal. They are not fish. They are also known as sea cows. This is because they are gentle, large, slow-moving and eat grass and plants like cows.
There are three species of manatees: West Indian Manatees (Trichechus Manatus), West African Manatees (Trichechus senegalensis), Amazonian or South American Manatees (Trichechus inunguis).
There are also two sub-species of manatees: Antillean Manatee (Trichechus Manatus Manatus) and Florida Manatee (Trichechus Manatus Latirostris).
What do Manatees Look Like?
Manatees are large mammals. An adult can grow to be 9ft-13ft long. On average manatees weigh between 800-1,300 pounds. There have been manatees that weighed up to 3,000 pounds! Females are usually bigger than males.
They are gray and have leathery skins that constantly sheds and is replaced with new skin. If look at a manatee you will see that their skins always looks dry, flaky and peeling.
Manatees have a large round head with a snout and two large nostrils. Their snouts have hundreds of whiskers called vibrissae. At the bottom of the snout is their mouth.
They have two small eyes, behind each eye they have small holes that are their ear opening. They have no earlobes on the outside of their head but two inner lobes one on each side of their head. Even though their ears are tiny they can still hear sounds 300 miles away.
They have two paddle-like flippers one on each side of their body called pectoral fins. The manatee uses their pectoral fins for digging, eating and steering their body.
Manatees have a strong, big, flat tail that helps them move forward while swimming.
The West Indian and West African Manatees have 3-4 nails on each flipper.
The flippers help them steer while swimming. Manatees also use their flippers to help them eat.
Manatees have 24-32 molars located in the back of their mouths. When their molars get worn down from eating new teeth (molars) grow in.
Manatees have a unique breathing system. They live in the water but since manatees are mammals they can not breathe underwater.
Manatees usually come up for air every 3-4 minutes. When sleeping they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.
You may be thinking how does a manatee not inhale water and drown while they are sleeping. Well, manatees have special muscles in their noses. These muscles are used to pinch their nostrils very tightly so no water can get in.
Manatees have an interesting set of lungs that are much different from a human. Human lungs are short and thick. A manatee has very long, flat lungs. Their lungs lay across 60% of their body, on their back. These long, flat lungs help them breathe and also help the mammal float.
When a human breathes they replace about 10%of the air in their lungs, manatees replace about 90%!
Manatees live to be between 40-60 years old.
While swimming sometimes manatees will do flips underwater, roll around and even swim upside down.
Manatees are slow swimmers. They usually swim between 3-5 mph. They can swim up to 20mph for very short distances.
Manatees spend most of their time eating, resting or traveling.
They are herbivores meaning they only eat plants although at times manatees will eat small fish. Manatees are not picky in the type of plant that they eat. They have been known to eat over 60 different types of plants. Manatees eat turtle grass, different types of algae, water hyacinth and other types of plants in the water. In the Amazon, they will also eat floating palm plants.
Manatees have a large flexible lip that they use to help them eat.
They eat around 100 pounds of food or approximately 10% of their body weight daily. It takes a manatee six to eight hours every day to find and eat their food.
Manatees travel between 40-50 miles every day!
Manatees cannot move their neck from side to side. To see behind them they must turn their entire body
Manatees spend most of their time alone however, they are social animals. They will interact with other manatees and even play with them. They like to bodysurf with other manatees or even play chase. Manatees will sometimes rub faces or flippers with other manatees.
Like dolphins manatees are smart can be trained to learn tricks.
Manatees are generally quiet animals but will sometimes communicate with other manatees by making chirping, whistling and squeaking sounds. They also make these sounds when they are scared.
Manatees have a good sense of smell.
Manatees mainly live in shallow (3ft-10ft) rivers, saltwater bays, canals, and marshy coastal areas.
Amazonian manatees live in freshwater.
Manatees cannot survive in water temperatures below 60 degrees.
They live in the Gulf of Mexico in Southeastern states of the U.S including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, Caribbean Sea, Amazon Basin, and West Africa.
Mother manatees are pregnant for around 12-13 months. They will give birth to one manatee at a time. A baby manatee is called a calf.
Calves are between 3ft-4ft long when they are born and can weight between 60-0 pounds. That’s one big baby!
Since manatees need air to breathe, right after a calf is born, their mother will bring them to the surface to breathe.
A calf can swim right after they are born. For the first couple of weeks of life, the mother manatee will continue to bring the calf up to the surface for air until the calf learns to do it on their own.
Like other mammals, the calf will drink the milk from their mother.
The mother manatee and the calf are very close. Calves live with their mom for two years, some will stay even longer.
The world is a dangerous place for a baby manatee, some babies have been attacked by alligators, snapping turtles and some sharks. Baby manatees have also eaten garbage in the water that can be toxic and kill them. Baby manatees have also been killed in boat accidents.
Due to the large size of a manatee, they do not have many predators. At times they have been attacked by alligators, crocodiles, and sharks but their only real predator is humans.
In the United States, manatees are classified as endangered. It is illegal to hunt them. Sometimes in parts of the world poachers (people who illegally hunt animals) kill manatees for food, oil, and other things.
Many manatees are killed in boat accidents. Manatees are a dark color and they move slowing, people driving the boats often don’t see them. Manatees often do not hear the boats coming in time and get in the way. They are often hit by the boats getting cut by the propellers. Many manatees do not survive the hit.
In some places, laws have been put in effect to help save the manatee. In Florida, they have a law the requires signs to be put up and indicate that manatees live in the area and to slow down.
There are also rescue programs that help take care of sick or injured manatees and release them back into the wild when they are better.
They also have Adopt-a-Manatee and Save the Manatee programs that raise money for manatee preservation and research.
Manatees also suffer from loss of habitat and climate change.
Creatures of the Sea Manatees by Kris Hirschmann
Face to Face with Manatees by Brian Skerry
Manatees by Melissa Gish