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Manatees are large, herbivorous, aquatic mammals of the family Trichechidae. The four surviving species of manatee live in tropical waters close to shore. They are migratory and generally solitary. Manatees can be found along the western coast of Africa, the Eastern coasts of South America and the Southern United States, and in the Amazon River. The dugong, which is of the same order as the manatee (Sirenia), is found in tropical waters off the coasts of Eastern Africa, Southern Asia and Northern Australia. The major difference between a manatee and a dugong, besides their coastal range, is their tale. The dugong has a whale-like fluked tail while the manatee's tail is wide and flat, resembling a paddle. Although manatees and dugongs look like the walrus, their closest relation is the elephant.

Manatees are slow-moving, gentle animals that spend much of their time grazing water bottoms, eating grasses, algae and other aquatic and semi-aquatic plants. Although they appear fat, manatees do not carry a blubber layer and are susceptible to changes in water temperature. If water temperatures fall below 70 degrees, manatees can develop pneumonia and die. Manatees in Florida have learned how to deal with this and migrate to electric power plant discharge areas or Florida's naturally warm springs when waters turn cold.

Despite their massive size—manatees easily grow to 12ft in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds—they are quite agile. Their flippers and tail steer them through rolls and somersaults and they can swim both vertically and upside down. Much like a human hand, the manatee's flipper has jointed bones with nails on the end. Besides propulsion and steering, their flippers are used to help them feed and to hold their young. A manatee's eyes are small and their ears are mere slits, yet their eyesight is quite good and their ear bones large, which leads scientists to believe they have wonderful hearing. Manatees vocalize with chirps, squeaks and whistles. Most of this communication takes place between a mother and her calf.

Although manatees can live to be 60 years of age, their reproduction rate is slow. Females reach sexual maturity at 6 - 7 years, males not until they are closer to 10 years old. Gestation lasts for nearly 13 months and the single calf (twins are very rare) will stay with its mother for at least 2 years. Females give birth once every 4 – 5 years. With this low reproductive rate, it is not surprising that manatee populations are small—only 2,600 live in the waters around Florida.

Many manatee deaths are caused directly or indirectly by humans. The manatee gets struck by watercraft, crushed or drowned in flood control gates and canal locks, or dies by accidentally ingesting abandoned fishing tackle wrapped in vegetation. Adult manatees are so frequently wounded by boat propellers that scientists use the pattern of their scarring to tell manatees apart. All is not lost. Manatees have been placed on the Endangered Species List and are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. Large fines, penalties and even prison time await any human who harms, harasses or even disturbs a manatee.

Fun Manatee Facts

- Manatees can only breathe through their noses.

- Most mammals have 7 cervical vertebrae. The manatee only has 6 and so can not turn its head, but must turn its entire body when it wants to look around.

- It is believed Manatees are responsible for sailors' tales of mermaids and sirens. That must have been a long time at sea because the manatee's also known as the Sea Cow.

- Manatees can live in both saltwater and freshwater and they are the only aquatic mammal that is an herbivore.


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