Manatees are awesome.
Roly-poly pacifists, tropical underwater munch-machines, they look like something a kid would make out of Play-Doh. But there’s a lot of cool stuff about them you might not know.
In the name of sea cows everywhere, here are 22 interesting facts about manatees.
1. There are three different species of manatee (and one dugong).
There’s the Amazonian manatee, the West Indian manatee, and the West African manatee. No points for guessing where each of them lives. They also have a single cousin, the dugong, which lives in the Indian and western Pacific oceans.
2. Their closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes.
They split off over 50 million years ago though, so don’t expect to see them all at the same family reunion.
3. Manatees love the tropics.
Though they look chubby, they don’t have all that much fat, so they prefer swimming in warm water.
4. They’ve got big bellies…
Manatees are plant eaters, like horses, so their stomach and guts have evolved to digest tough plant matter. Up to 20% of their weight can come from their bellies alone.
5. …and even bigger appetites.
Open the buffet! Manatees chow down on about 10% of their body weight a day. That means a 1,000-pound manatee will eat about 100 pounds of plants every day!
6. They never have to visit a dentist, either.
Manatees replace their teeth throughout their lives. Their diet is pretty tough on their teeth (partly because they end up chewing on a lot of sand as they eat), so as their molars get worn down, new ones grow up behind them. It’s like a conveyor belt of teeth.
7. Their pregnancies last a pretty long time.
A manatee is pregnant for about 12 months — that’s not quite as long as the 22-month pregnancy of their distant relatives, the elephants, but it’s longer than a human’s nine! Their babies usually stick around for a year or two after the mom gives birth.
8. Once upon a time, people may have thought manatees were mermaids.
Might be hard to believe, but it’s true! Even people on Columbus’ journey to North America got confused:
“On the previous day [Jan. 8, 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [in Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
— “Voyages of Columbus,” page 218
The name for their scientific order — Sirenia — even comes from the sirens of Greek mythology who are sometimes described as mermaids.
9. They may also be named after breasts. Yes, breasts.
When Columbus got to the Caribbean, he found the Taíno people already living there. Their word for breast – manatí – is probably the origin of the animal’s English name.
10. They’re pretty slow…
Manatees usually plod along at about 3-5 mph, although they can get up to 20 mph if they really try.
11. …and they can get pretty old…
Snooty the manatee, who lives in the South Florida Museum’s Parker Manatee Aquarium, is a venerable 67 years old.
12. …but they’re not dumb.
Manatees have relatively small brains for their bodies, but some scientists actually think it’s the other way around — they have huge bodies for their brains! And some research has shown that they might be as good at experimental tasks as dolphins. They just look kind of dumb because they’re a lot slower.
13. They used to have huge cousins.
In the 18th century, explorers scouting around Alaska found 30-foot-long dugongs living in the Arctic waters. Known as Steller’s sea cows, they ate the kelp that grew in the icy water.
Unfortunately, they went extinct soon afterward. Sailors discovered that, in addition to being huge, they were also delicious. And it wasn’t just Europeans — there’s evidence that Native Americans hunted them too.
14. They have no natural predators.
No other wild animal eats them. Good for them!
15. But that doesn’t mean they’re not in danger.
Though manatees are awesome, their populations have historically been dropping.
16. Humans are their biggest threat.
Habitat loss is a big problem for manatees, as are run-ins with human objects or vehicles. Manatees can get stuck in fishing gear or accidentally eat fishing line. Motor boats are especially problematic, as manatees are too slow to get out of the way of their sharp propeller blades.
17. That’s why the U.S. government protects them.
Three different laws help protect them: the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.
These laws make it illegal to kill or hurt a manatee in the United States.
18. Boating speed limits help too.
Many waterways in manatee habitats now come with speed limits to give manatees time to get out of the way of propellers. People have also made manatee sanctuaries to make sure they have a home.
19. And there’s good news: All those protections are starting to pay off.
20. While there’s still more work to be done, the number of manatees in the U.S. is starting to rise again.
21. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just proposed that the West Indian manatee should be moved to “Threatened” from “Endangered.”
“The manatee’s recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many,” Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner said at a Miami Seaquarium event.
And don’t worry – the manatees won’t lose any of their protections.
22. They’re a conservation success story!
Now that’s something to smile about!
They’re living, breathing (and not to mention adorable) proof that we can make a difference for our friends in need.
Of course, it’s not over yet. By spreading the word, we can help raise awareness about them, the other manatee species, and all the other animals who need our protection! Hopefully, all of them can continue their successful rebound — just like the West Indian manatee.