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Animal Profile: The  Manatee

Paradoxically, the Manatee is not related to dolphins or whales but is in fact the large aquatic relative of the elephant! Unsurprisingly, these marine mammals can reach up to 1200 pounds in weight... More fascinating still, manatees were also once mistaken for mermaids by explorer, Christopher Columbus! Read more about this fascinating but highly threatened marine species:

Despite their bulky 'sea-cow' appearance, manatees are gentle, slow-moving animals and very graceful swimmers! They are greyish-brown coloured animals with front flippers and powerful flat tails. Like dolphins, manatees show signs of complex associative learning with good long-term memory and the ability to communicate by squealing underwater to express emotion. Generally found in seagrass beds and shallow areas  with thriving freshwater vegetation, manatees are mainly herbivorous and can consume a tenth of their body weight in 24 hours! Generally, the manatee remains submerged underwater and only surfaces to breathe. Like any active mammal, this depends on its energy expenditure and these guys have been known to body surf or barrel roll when playing!

Flickr | USFWS | Endangered SpeciesBeing a migratory species, manatees are distinguished by their habitat: West-Indian manatees are predominantly found in Florida and the northern coast of South America, the Amazonian manatee naturally inhabits the Amazon River while African manatees are largely concentrated near West Africa. These three species of manatee are also related to the dugong in the western Pacific Ocean and were once closely linked to the extinct Steller’s sea cow. Within 27 years of Europeans discovering Steller’s sea cow in 1741, the vulnerable mammal was hunted into extinction. Sadly, manatees have also been listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union.

Manatees have a low breeding rate as the gestation period is one year and mothers produce one calf every two to five years. The lifespan of a manatee can also reach a whopping 60 years with their mortality attributed to natural causes of death. This means that manatees have an ageing population! Consequently, human-related causes of death can have a much greater impact on manatee populations than ever anticipated. Manatee survival is threatened by hunters, motorboat accidents and fishing nets; the most serious threat in the USA being habitat destruction driven by coastal development. In 2016, after significant improvements in habitat conditions however, the US Fish and Wildlife Service down-listed the mammal from an ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened status’.

Flickr | PRO | U.S. Geological SurveyUnfortunately, in July 2017, the oldest manatee in captivity, Snooty, died at the South Florida Museum's Parker Manatee Aquarium just after its 69th birthday. Being the only manatee at the aquarium, Snooty was allowed to interact with humans for educational purposes and manatee research. Many manatee rehabilitation centres exist worldwide to aid prompt release, promote the awareness of threats and work to ensure manatee survival.  

That concludes our Manatee profile! Don't forget to support the conservation efforts that will keep this magnificent marine species in our oceans for years to come. Have you seen a manatee? Tell us in the comments!

By Anaka Nair - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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