The manatee is a large, gentle aquatic mammal that, through conservation efforts, has just been removed from the endangered species to the threatened species lists, though not all conservationists are pleased with this change. The manatee may also be called a sea cow or a dugong. They have round faces, and large brown eyes, and their tails are thought to have inspired the idea of mermaids existing in the West Atlantic waters, which they inhabit.
Most find the herbivorous manatee charming. They are frequently tourist attractions in Belize, and throughout the coast and rivers of Florida. A few manatees live in captivity. The oldest manatee, Snooty, resides at the South Florida Museum. He has lived there for over forty years, but his precise age is unknown. In the wild, the manatee that does not meet an untimely death can be expected to live for approximately fifty years, since the animal has no natural predators.
In size, the manatee can weigh as much as 2000 pounds (approximately 900 kg). They reach sexual maturity between the age of five and nine years old. Though one would assume the seal or walrus as a close relative, genetically, scientists believe the manatee is most closely related to the elephant. Surprisingly, the manatee is also related to the hyrax, which is a small land mammal. Like an elephant, the manatee has tusks, whiskers and a longish nose, similar to a trunk.
The manatee enjoys warm water, and in the past, most of them migrated south to warmer waters as winter chilled the areas of the Atlantic surrounding Florida. Today, manatees have made an unusual adaptation which allows many of them to stay in one place throughout the year. Power plants near water tend to warm the water much to the liking of the manatee.
Unfortunately, some of the power plants that manatees have relied upon are closing. However, the manatee has not adapted to the colder water by migrating. Scientists worry that the manatee will be unable to reconsider migration, and are attempting to find other means of warming the water.
In addition to adapted behavior which may risk the life of the manatees, the two most frequent causes of death for manatees are ingestion of fishing lines, and direct collision with power boats, the second being the most common. Since manatees are slow, and as some consider, not possessing a large amount of intelligence, they frequently do not have time to get out of the way when a powerboat approaches quickly.
Though people using powerboats are encouraged not to drive quickly through manatee water, this warning is frequently ignored, thus leaving the manatee at great risk. Greater awareness has reduced death by powerboat. Up until recently, more manatees were killed by boat than were born each year. Still, more changes need to be legislated to save the manatee.
Of recent concern is the mass death of over 200 manatees which may be related to chemical pollutants in the water. These deaths constitute roughly 10% of the remaining manatee population. Marine biologists and ecologists are exploring the exact cause of the deaths by testing waters manatees frequent for certain chemicals that have caused mass deaths in other sea and water mammal populations.
It is hoped that these scientists may find better ways to protect and increase the manatee population. The species has been protected since the 1700s, and yet it seems that these gentle creatures which encounter so many difficulties, like pollution and habitat destruction, may not recover to delight us with their presence in future years.