Manatee in Florida
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What is a Manatee?
Manatees are a large, slow-moving marine mammal that inhabit warm tropical and subtropical waters of North and South America and Africa. The world population of manatees is extremely endangered. The last aerial survey of the Florida West Indian Manatees that live in Florida waters was taken in January 2003. The survey showed a population count of 3,113 manateels.
Manatee Shape and Size
Average adult manatees are about 10 to 14 feet long and weigh between 1,500 to 1,800 pounds, although the largest are over 13 feet and weigh 3,500 pounds. Their torpedo-shaped gray-brown bodies taper into flat, paddle-like tails. They have two flippers and their faces are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. Nostrils are on the upper surface of the snout which close tightly like valves when submerged. Manatees live to be approximately 60 years old.
Manatees eat by using their divided upper lip, which is very flexible, to grasp and take in sea grass and floating freshwater plants. A manatee’s only teeth are molars, for grinding vegetation. Some research suggests that manatees periodically require fresh water. West Indian manatees have been seen congregating at river mouths and drinking from hoses, culverts, and sewage outfalls. Up to six to eight hours each day is spent in the seagrass beds feeding. Manatees are completely herbivorous and can eat 10-15% of their body weight daily, or 100 to 150 pounds of vegetation for a 1,000-pound manatee. Like other air-breathing marine mammals (dolphins, whales, and seals), manatees must periodically surface for air.
Manatee Geographic Range
The geographic range of the manatee is limited by water temperature. The water temperature generally must be warmer that 63 degrees for a manatee to stay alive. They prefer 72 degrees or warmer. During the summer, the manatees can be found from the Louisiana coast around the gulf coast and up the east coast to as far north as Virginia. Chessie, a now-famous manatee tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey‘s Sirenia Project, has been spotted as far north as Rhode Island. They live in shallow coastal waters, estuaries, bays and rivers of both coasts of Florida, eating plants. During the winter months manatees can be found by the hundreds huddled around warm natural spring waters or the heated water released by power plants.
Manatee's Social Behavior
Females are probably not reproductive mature until 5 to 9 years old and males not until 6 to 9 years old. It is believed that one calf is born every 3 or 4 years. Twins are rare in the wild. Gestation period is around 1 year. At birth, West Indian manatees measure about 4 ft. and weigh 70 pounds. The main source of nourishment for calves comes from their mother's milk, although they are able to nibble on plants within a few weeks of birth because they are born with premolars and molars. They are usually found in small groups, manatees are gentle and slow moving. They are often shy and reclusive. Most of their time is spent eating, resting, and in travel. Manatees have no system of defense and completely harmless. Manatees emit sounds that are within human auditory range. They make sounds such a squeaks and squeals when frightened, playing or communicating, particularly between a cow and its calf.
Manatees are believed to have evolved from a wading, plant-eating animal, and share a common ancestor with the elephant. The West Indian manatee is one of 4 living species and 1 extinct species of the mammalian order Sirenia. It is the only species occurring in North America. There are two sub-species of the West Indian manatee, with the Florida manatee (T. manatus latirostris) occurring in the U.S. and the Antillean manatee (T. manatus manatus) found throughout the remainder of the species’ range. Other members of Sirenia include the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the dugong (Indian and Pacific Oceans) and the extinct Steller’s sea cow, which lived in the sub-Arctic waters of the Bering Sea until it was hunted to extinction in 1768, 27 years after it was discovered. The dugong, manatee and elephant are unusual among mammals in that their molar teeth are replaced horizontally instead of vertically.
As much as people like to see manatees, they may be the reason they become extinct. Powerboats are the greatest threat to manatees. Manatees are slow, near-surface swimmers, and manatees are killed and injured by boat propellers too often. In 1990, 218 manatees were killed in boating accidents, and many more were injured. There are now manatee zones around coastal areas that require boats to slow down. Additionally, red tide can kill a number of manatees at one time. Recent mass deaths among marine mammals have been traced to greater disease vulnerability due to chemical pollution.
The manatee has no known predators other than humans. In the past, humans hunted manatees extensively for their meat, fat, and tough hides. In some parts of the Caribbean and South America, manatees are still hunted for food.
Manatees have been protected for an unusually long time. The English declared Florida a manatee sanctuary in the 1700s and hunting manatees was prohibited. Sanctuary from hunters has not protected the manatee from speed boats, however. Speed limits in waterways can help manatees by giving them enough time to avoid collisions and reducing the severity of collisions when they do occur.
Residential and commercial development along rivers and waterways has also affected the manatee population. Habitat destruction has damaged the estuarine seagrass communities on which manatees depend. In addition, chemical pollution has impaired the immune systems of marine mammals, and the manatees may have become more vulnerable to infection as a result.
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Manatee Watching in Florida
Manatees spend hours grazing underwater everyday, and it is exciting to watch them in their natural habitat. Do keep in mind that it is illegal to harass manatees. They are gentle and do not mind being around people. When we are in the Intra-coastal and the bridge operators see manatees, they will announce to the boats to slow down for manatees in the area. If you are observant you can see them in the summer months in the Intra-coastal and passes around Sarasota.