Often found in slow moving rivers, canals, estuaries and coastal waters, they are the only herbivorous animal to live their entire lives in water. These rather graceful creatures are at home in both fresh and salt water but most commonly found in the brackish waters of inter-coastal waterways – though they do need frequent access to warmer fresh water found in inland rivers.
The species found in Florida – the West Indian Manatee (including both sub-species: Florida and Antillean, or Caribbean) typically weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds (363 to 454 kg) but some have reached as much as 3,000 pounds (1361 kg)!
Sometimes known as sea cows, the manatee can eat more than 100 pounds of vegetation in a day, the Florida residents are known to eat more than 60 species of plants – including several types of sea-grass, various algae and mangrove leaves.
Derived from their mistaken mermaid identity, manatee are members of the scientific order, Sirenia, which include two additional species, the slightly smaller Amazon and West African manatee and their close cousin the dugong (found in the coastal waters of Northern Australia). The now extinct Stellar’s Sea Cow is also a member of this group of water-born mammals.
While they may appear slow and bulky, manatee are surprisingly quick. They usually swim around five mph but can speed up to 15 mph (24 kph) if needed, thanks to their large paddle-like tail. Their skeleton is made up of very dense bones that may aid in their neutral buoyancy. This ability to neither float or sink helps reduce the effort needed to graze upon the plant matter along the bottom of the waterways.
Unlike most mammals except sloths, the manatee have only six bones in their neck (instead of the usual seven). This means the manatee cannot turn their heads but must turn their whole body in order to look around their surroundings.
Despite their size, manatee have relatively little body fat and therefore cannot handle temperatures below 68°F (20°C). This need for warmer waters causes them to move more inland during the winter months and they can be found in larger numbers near warmer sources such as coastal power plant discharge pipes and natural springs located around the Florida coastline.
Though recently their status from Endangered was changed to Threatened – manatee are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and it is illegal to harass or harm these amazing creatures. They are still at risk from many factors including boat strikes, cold weather stress and shoreline pollution destroying their habitats and food sources.