It’s a COW, It’s an ELEPHANT, and It’s a MANATEE!!!

The Florida manatee, Florida’s state marine mammal, is a large aquatic relative of the elephant. They are grayish brown in color and have thick, wrinkled skin on which there is often a growth of algae. Their front flippers help them steer, or sometimes crawl, through shallow water. They also have powerful, flat tails that help propel them through the water.

manateeManatees take up residence primarily in Florida’s coastal waters during winter. Manatees can be found in the warm waters of shallow rivers, bays, estuaries and coastal waters. Like other grazing animals, Florida manatees play an important role in influencing the plant growth in the shallow rivers, bays, estuaries, canals and coastal waters they call home.

Manatees remain to be one of the many wonders that entertain the residents and guests of the Islands. Recently, at the Sanibel Lighthouse a manatee herd kept bystanders attention and curiosity, as viewers were given access to the mating process that was taking place. At one point we counted 18 manatees involved in the mating process that remained active for at least 12 hours moving between the front of the lighthouse and the fishing pier. It was amazing to be allowed to see nature so up close (and personal).

The manatee can reproduce any time of the year. When a female manatee goes into estrus, she is soon detected and pursued by numerous male manatees throughout the cycle (28–42 days in length). During breeding, a single female or cow in estrus, will be followed by a group of a dozen or more males or bulls, forming a mating herd. They appear to breed indiscriminately during this time; however, age, and experience of some males in the herd probably plays a role in breeding success. The individual male members participating in the herd are transitory, try relentlessly to hold on to her, and roll over in attempts to gain access to her ventrum. The cow often twists and turns violently, apparently to escape her suitors. The bulls meanwhile attempt to remain adjacent to her, presumably competing with each other to become the first to mate with her. Manatees do not form permanent pair bonds like some animal species. Females only mate every other year due to the full 12 month gestation period after conception for the calf to be born. Calves are born weighing between 60 and 70 pounds and measuring about 3-4 feet long, and usually there is only one at a time but some reports of twins has been noted.

Well known for their gentle, slow-moving nature, manatees have also been known to body surf or barrel roll when playing. They normally rest and feed often. Manatees communicate by squealing under water to demonstrate fear, stress or excitement. Manatees only breathe through their nostrils, since while they are underwater their mouths are occupied with eating! A manatee’s lungs are 2/3 the length of its body. Manatees are herbivores, with a diet consisting mostly of sea grasses and freshwater vegetation. Manatees only have molars, which are used to grind food. As they wear down and fall out, they are replaced with new teeth.

Currently, the Florida manatee is listed as “endangered”. Low rate of reproduction, combined with habitat loss and high mortality rates often attributable to humans, threaten the manatee’s chance of survival. There is currently between 3,000 and 3,500 manatees in Florida waters. Documented manatee mortality for the year 2001 in Florida waters totaled 325, from human-related activities and natural causes. Human-related mortality is due to loss of habitat, watercraft collision, pollution, litter, harassment, and flood control structures, while natural mortality is due to cold weather and red tides. It is protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. These Acts make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill this animal. The manatee is also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states, “It is unlawful for any person, at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee”.

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