4 Fascinating Facts About Manatees and How You Can Help Them

Editor’s note: This Care2 favorite was originally posted on November 28, 2014.

Manatees have been one of my favorite animals ever since I was little. I’m not sure what about them appeals to me, exactly. Maybe it’s because these marine mammals are just so chill. Or perhaps it’s because they look like a big, huggable potato. No matter the source of my affection, I’m entranced.

And as we near the end of World Oceans Week, I thought it might be a good time to wave my magic want and put you under their spell, as well.

1. All three manatee species are in trouble.

Manatees can be divided up into three distinct species that roughly correlate to where they live. The West Indian manatee lives in the Caribbean and include two subspecies: the Florida manatee and the Antillean or Caribbean manatee. Manatees also live in the Amazon and off the West African coast, called the Amazonian manatee and West African manatee, respectively.

A possible new species of dwarf manatee has been seen in freshwater habitats in the Amazon, but the veracity of those claims remain in question.

According to the IUCN, all three extant species of manatee are considered vulnerable, which means that they are at a heightened risk of extinction. The manatee’s Pacific cousin, the dugong, is also vulnerable.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to learn a lesson from our experiences with another manatee relative, the Steller’s sea cow — which humans hunted to extinction less than 30 years after its discovery.

2. Despite the nickname “sea cow,” manatees are most closely related to elephants.

On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between manatees and cows. Both are slow-moving herbivores, and neither can see very well. However, when you scratch the surface, things get more interesting.

Sirenians, the order to which manatees belong, came on the scene about 50 million years ago. Like whales, manatees evolved from land animals that returned to the sea. And one of their closest relatives is the elephant.

In fact, the West Indian and West African manatee have fingernails on their flippers that look suspiciously like the fingernails on elephants. Although the Amazonian manatee and dugong have lost their fingernails, they are just as closely related to elephants.

3. Manatees are smarter than you think.

When it comes to animal smarts, everyone thinks about dolphins or great apes. Manatees, with their slow, lumbering bodies, don’t exactly evoke brilliance. For a long time scientists thought that manatees weren’t very smart at all because their brain lacks the wrinkles that generally indicate intelligence.

That assumption is changing, however. There’s evidence that manatees are just as good at experimental tasks as dolphins — but because manatees are herbivores, they are harder to motivate. In addition, manatees have evolved a complex and highly sensitive sense of touch and hearing that other animals just don’t have. While a lot remains unknown about manatee brain development, these findings indicate that they aren’t just big, dumb beasts.

4. Humans pose the largest threat to manatees.

Manatees are herbivores. They don’t eat other animals and, due in large part to their habitat, no other animals eats them. Unfortunately for these creatures, manatees have to share a planet with us.

Despite formerly being on the Endangered Species list and receiving protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act  and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act, record 829 Florida manatees died in 2013. This high mortality rate was due in large part to a toxic algae called red tide.

The shocking number of manatee fatalities may not have been directly attributable to humans, but that doesn’t mean we get out of jail free, so to speak. Because manatees live in shallow water and graze on sea grass close to the surface, they’re particularly vulnerable to injury by speed boat.

In 2013, there were 72 confirmed manatee deaths by watercraft in Florida – the most of the human-caused fatalities. Meanwhile, the African manatee is poached for meat, oil and bones. These animals are also accidentally killed when caught in fishing nets. In South America, oil spills and habitat loss pose a significant threat to the Amazonian manatee.


Photo Credit: USFWS/Flickr

All is not lost. There is something you can do.

If we stay vigilant, manatees can make a comeback. You can adopt a manatee from the World Wildlife Fund or the manatee conservation group Save the Manatee.

You can also take precautions if you happen to be sharing the water with our manatee friends. If you find yourself swimming with manatees, try to avoid excessive noise and splashing. And remember to use snorkels instead of scuba gear, because manatees don’t like noise from air tanks.

Save the Manatee provides information for boaters to avoid harming manatees, as well as information on what to do if you see an injured manatee. There’s even an app that will tell you when you’re approaching a manatee speed zone.

If we all band together, maybe things will turn out OK for the friendly sea cow and its beautiful ocean habitat.

Photo Credit: pxhere


Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Sue H
Sue H3 months ago

Thanks for re posting this article.

Thomas M
Past Member 4 months ago

Thank you

Shirley Plowman
Shirley Plowman9 months ago

I have loved these creatures since I learned about them, many yrs ago. such ge tle creatures, I respect that about them.

Karen K
Karen K9 months ago

I would love to see a manatee. They seem wonderful!

Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D9 months ago

Humans pose the largest threat to every species. Heart broken...tears falling...

Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T9 months ago

Good important information. Thank you for sharing.

Janis K
Janis K9 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Danii P
Past Member 9 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Danii P
Past Member 9 months ago

Thanks for sharing.