10 Fun Facts You Didn't Know About Manatees
Manatees, those lovable sea cows that gravitate to the warm water in Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River as the temperature drops, are unique creatures with fascinating lives. Get to know our favorite sea friends a little better with these fun facts.
1. Related to Who?
Manatees are mammals, like walruses and seals, which they most closely resemble in shape, but they are not related. In fact, the manatees closest living relative is... the elephant! They have very thick skin, sometimes over an inch thick, and even have three to four toenails, like the elephant. The manatee snout is a shrunken version of the elephant’s trunk. The use their prehensile lips to grasp and pull food into their mouths similar to the way elephants use their trunks.
Although they live in water like fish, manatees, need to breathe air to survive, so they come to the surface frequently to take a breath. And when they do—it’s a big one! Manatees replace 90 percent of the air in their lungs in one breath. By comparison, their fellow mammal, the human, only replaces 10 percent of their air in one breath. Manatees are also champion breath-holders. They can hold their breath underwater for up to 20 minutes! Don’t try that at home, fellow mammals.
2. Who Are You Calling Fat?
Despite their blubbery size and shape, Manatees don’t have much blubber to keep warm. They may look fat, but their body mass is made up of mostly their stomach and intestines. “Without insulation, they can get cold stress in water below 68 degrees,” explained Joyce Palmer, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. “That’s why, when winter arrives, they move to the warm spring-fed waters in Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees.”
3. A Big Toothy Grin—Open Wide...Chomp, Chomp…
Manatees have a mouthful of teeth but they don’t bite. They use their teeth to munch on seagrass and other plant life. They are big eaters, the ocean’s largest herbivore, they can measure almost 14 feet long and weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. They spend most of their waking hours eating, consuming 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in greenery every day. All that chewing grinds their teeth down but the manatee doesn’t care. They grow new teeth throughout their entire lives—similar to their elephant cousins, but they can only grow new teeth six times during their lifetime. The new ones grow in the back, pushing the old ones out the front. Look, Maw, lost another one!
4. Sailors Said What? Hey! We Resemble That!
Centuries ago, manatee sightings by sailors at sea gave rise to the myth of mermaids. But the vision was a mirage-like hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, dehydration, malnutrition, and maybe a little wishful thinking on the sailor’s part!
According to Smithsonian
magazine, Christopher Columbus is said to have made the first written account of manatees in North America. But it wasn’t flattering. Thinking he was seeing a mermaid, Columbus wrote: “they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits." Holy sea cow! We resemble that remark!
The scientific name for manatees is Sirenia, derived from the Greek Sirens, the dangerous sea nymphs who lured sailors with song, drawing them and their vessels into the rocky shores. It’s also another term for mermaids, so maybe it’s not so surprising that sailors mistook one for the other.
5. Slow and Steady
Manatees have the smallest brain in relation to their body size of all mammals. But that doesn’t mean they are not smart. They can learn basic tasks, like dolphins, they can differentiate colors, and are extremely sensitive to touch. They are just a little slower, preferring to travel along at 3-5 miles per hour.
6. Mama and Babies
A female manatee is pregnant for a whole year! Then, the baby, called a calf, stays with its mother and nurses for up to two years. A female manatee has one calf every two to five years. By the time they are five years old, manatees are ready to have babies of her own. Females can start breeding at three to five years old, and males at five to seven years old.
7. Not a Threat, But Threatened
Manatees are gentle creatures and have no natural predators. In fact, even alligators give them the right-of-way. Humans are the biggest threat to manatees, via boating collisions and propeller injuries, as well as threats to their habitat and water quality.
8. Remember Snooty and Say Hello to Zach and Rachel
Most manatees live 30 to 40 years. Not Snooty. He was the oldest known manatee when he died in July 2017 at age 69. He lived most of his life in captivity, which may explain his extraordinarily long life, since he was safe from boat strikes in the South Florida Museum.
Rachel is another success story. “She was a calf that was a watercraft injury and rescued in 1990,” Palmer explained. “She was captured in the Chassahowitzka River and rehabilitated at Sea World then lived at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park until her release into the wild in 1997.” Her last known sighting was in 2016, surviving almost 20 after her release into the wild. While she hasn’t been sighted since 2016, she is believed to be still around.
Zach is the oldest known wild male, first documented in Oct. 1967 in the Crystal River area by USGS. He is sighted almost every year, and was last photographed during the 2017-2018 manatee season at Three Sisters Springs.
9. Swim With a Manatee
King’s Bay and Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida, is one of the best places in the world where you can swim with a manatee. But please practice Passive Observation when you swim with these gentle beasts. That means, look, but don’t touch. Manatees might look cuddly, but resist giving them a hug. Touching, disturbing, or otherwise harassing these protected creatures can get you a citation. Practice good manatee manners and chill with them in the warm waters of the springs.
10. Live Long and Prosper!
Working together, we can ensure that the fun, loveable manatee doesn’t go the way of its long lost—literally—much larger relative, the Stellar’s Sea Cow, which was hunted to extinction in the 18th century, less than 30 years after it was discovered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put protections in place, reducing the size of a high-speed sports zone and the speed of boats allowed in King’s Bay, and established manatee protection zones, off-limits to people. In 2015, The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex banned paddlecraft in Three Sisters Springs during manatee season—from mid-November through March 31. You can do your part by obeying all guidelines when boating, swimming and viewing manatees, and help protect water quality to preserve their habitat for many manatees to come.
"When people come here, whether they swim with the manatees or view them from the boardwalk, it’s an amazing experience,” Palmer said. “Our hope is that when they leave, they will take that experience with them and go beyond that and want to protect their habitat. What we do as residents in Crystal River or visitors impacts their lives.”
For more information:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission