- Status: Endangered
- Known as: Florida Manatee, West Indian manatee.
- Estimated numbers left in the wild: Approximately 5,000, but estimates vary.
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The Florida manatee, an endangered subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is a vaguely seal-like marine mammal measuring 3 to 3.6 meters long on average and weighing 680 to 820 kilograms. Manatees are ocean-dwelling herbivorous mammals closely related to elephants, though the two groups split as long ago as 60 million years. Grey-brown and largely hairless, Florida manatees have forelegs adapted into flippers and a muscular, flattened tail that provides a strong swimming stroke. These manatees have no teeth except molars, which fall out and regrow as they are worn down by chewing the water plants that form their diet.
These manatees stay in shallow coastal waters and appear to need exposure to both fresh and saltwater to survive. They eat water plants that grow in both environments, and though they tend to be slow-moving, they can muster the energy to be playful at times, too. They eat as much as 15% of their body weight in underwater foliage daily.
Like all other manatees, Florida manatees need to stay in water that is 20 degrees C or warmer all the time. The thermal shock from entering cooler water can quickly kill a manatee, and long-term survival would be impossible even in cases where immediate death did not occur. This limits the maximum northward range of the species and confines them to subtropical and tropical waters. These manatees originally migrated south in the winter, but now many remain in the warm discharge waters of power plants, which may raise their vulnerability even higher.
Manatees are slow-breeding creatures, with a typical pregnancy lasting as long as 14 months and the calf needing around two years of care. They may live up to half a century in the wild.
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Florida manatees are found in the warm coastal waters off the south-eastern and southern United States, ranging as far north as Georgia. They formerly migrated south but now remain near power plant outflow areas.
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Collisions chiefly threaten Florida manatees with boats – few lack scars from propellers hacking through their flesh, and some are hideously maimed yet manage to survive. Many more die outright from being chopped to pieces or perish from infections later. Though the image of the reckless and selfish speedboat owner chopping callously through manatees is a powerful one, these boats are responsible for very few of the injuries due to the propellers’ construction.
It actually tugs boats and large boats that injure and kill manatees. The low sound of their engines is inaudible to manatees, and the animals, therefore, do not know to get out of the way since they cannot detect the boat until it strikes them. Red tide and ingested fishing gear are other hazards.
Fortunately, Florida manatees are not quite as scarce as once believed since a 2010 count provided a hard figure of at least 5,000 individuals instead of previous unsupported estimates of 2,000 or less. However, the subspecies’ survival is still fragile, and strong conservation efforts are needed to preserve these gentle, intriguing sea creatures from extinction.
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The manatee was one of the earliest animals to receive legal protection in the United States, reaching back as far as the late 19th century. Sea World of Florida has played a key role in helping conserve manatees with its rehabilitation efforts. In contrast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has engaged various programs to aid in manatee protection, and many local efforts are underway also.
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Save the Manatee Club
Save the Manatee Club focuses its efforts on protecting the three species of manatees and their marine habitats through advocacy, public awareness, education, research, rescue, and rehabilitation.