10 Facts About Manatees

Learn about "Sea Cows"

Manatee calf nursing on mother manatee underwater
Manatee calf nursing.

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Manatees are iconic sea creatures — with their whiskered faces, broad backs, and paddle-shaped tail, it's hard to mistake them for anything else (except perhaps a dugong). Here you can learn more about manatees.

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Manatees Are Marine Mammals

October is whale-watching season: A humpback whale lunge feeds in clear view of a whale watching boat out in Monterey Bay, California.


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Like whales, pinnipeds, otters, and polar bears, manatees are marine mammals. Characteristics of marine mammals include that they are endothermic (or "warm-blooded"), give birth to live young and nurse their young. They also have hair, a characteristic that's evident on a manatee's face.

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Manatees Are Sirenians

Dugong on ocean floor

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Sirenians are animals in the Order Sirenia — which includes manatees, dugongs, and the extinct Steller's sea cow. Sirenians have broad bodies, a flat tail, and two forelimbs. The most obvious difference between the living sirenia — manatees and dugongs — is that manatees have a round tail, and dugongs have a forked tail.

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The Word Manatee Is Thought to Be a Carib Word

Manatee near the water surface

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The word manatee is thought to come from the Carib (a South American language) word, meaning "woman's breast," or "udder." It may also be from the Latin, for "having hands," which is a reference to the animal's flippers, for "having hands," which is a reference to the animal's flippers.

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There Are 3 Species of Manatees

Manatee Breathing at the Surface

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There are 3 species of manatees: the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) and Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis). The West Indian manatee is the only species that lives in the U.S. In actuality, it is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee — the Florida manatee — that lives in the U.S.

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Manatees Are Herbivores

Manatee eating a water hyacinth

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Manatees are probably called "sea cows" because of their fondness for grazing on plants such as seagrasses. They also have a stout, cow-like appearance. Manatees eat both fresh and saltwater plants. Since they only eat plants, they are herbivores.

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Manatees Eat 7-15% of Their Body Weight Each Day

Manatee grazing on ocean floor
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The average manatee weighs about 1,000 pounds. These animals feed for about 7 hours a day and eat 7-15% of their body weight. For an average-sized manatee, that would be eating about 150 pounds of greenery per day.

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Manatee Calves Can Stay With Their Mother for Several Years

Manatee mother with calf

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Female manatees make good mothers. Despite a mating ritual that has been described by the Save the Manatee Club as a "free for all," and a 30-second mating, the mother is pregnant for about a year and has a long bond with her calf. Manatee calves stay with their mother for at least 2 years, although they may stay with her for as long as four years. This is a long time compared to some other marine mammals, such as some seals, who only stay with their young for a few days, or a sea otter, which only stays with its pup for about 8 months.

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Manatees Communicate With Squeaking, Squealing Sounds

Close up of manatee face and mouth under water


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Manatees don't make very loud sounds, but they are vocal animals, with individual vocalizations. Manatees can make sounds to communicate fear or anger, in socializing, and to find each other (e.g., a calf looking for its mother). Save the Manatee Club and DOSITS both have great audio samples for you to hear manatee sounds.

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Manatees Live Primarily Along Coastlines in Shallow Water

An endangered, male West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus, being cared for at a rehabilitation compound in Laguna Guerrero, Chetumal Mexico

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Manatees are shallow, warm water species that are found along the coast, which is where they are in close proximity to their food. They live in waters that are about 10-16 feet deep, and these waters can be freshwater, saltwater or brackish. In the U.S., manatees are found primarily in water above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes waters from Virginia to Florida, and occasionally as far west as Texas.

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Manatees Are Sometimes Found in Strange Places

West Indian Manatee subspecies Florida manatee (T. m. latirostris) in Crystal River at Three Sisters Springs.
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Although manatees prefer warm waters, like those in the southeastern U.S., they are occasionally found in strange places. They have been seen in the U.S. as far north as Massachusetts. In 2008, a manatee was seen regularly in Massachusetts waters but died during an attempt to relocate it back down south. It is unknown why they move north, but is possibly due to expanding populations and a need to find food.