It’s Manatee Appreciation Day! Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the mild-mannered manatee! Also known as “Sea Cows”, there are three species of manatee that are currently “extant” (that is, not extinct): the Amazonian, West African, and West Indian manatees. Together with their close relative, the dugong, these creatures make of a group of water-dwelling mammals called Sirenians. The name comes from the word “siren”, which were beautiful mermaid-like women of Anicent Greek myths who led sailors to their doom with their hypnotizing songs. If you can believe it, Sirenians used to be mistaken for mermaids by sailors long ago.
You may think, since they’re water dwelling mammals, that manatees are related to whales and dolphins (Cetaceans), or at least close kin to seals, sea lions and walruses (Pinnipeds). While that’s a completely understandable assumption, you’d be wrong. Manatees and other Sirenians belong to a “clade” called Paenungulata, which includes elephants and small, rodent-like creatures called hyraxes. These three groups of animals feature a number of similar and somewhat unique characteristics, including broad “toenails” instead of claws, and a poorly developed system for controlling their internal body temperature (this will come up again in a little bit).
Only one manatee – the Florida subspecies of the West Indian manatee – is native to the United States. It is primarily found in Florida, but can be found as far north as Massachusetts and west into the Texas coastline. It’s been hunted for hundreds of years, and due to that and collisions from vessels, it nearly became extinct. Manatees are slow moving creatures, and have trouble avoiding boat propellers.
Environmental stressors, like red tides or temperature changes, can also cause harm to manatee populations. Though Manatees can endure salt, brackish and fresh water, they can’t handle extreme cold. Remember what we said about poorly regulated body temperature? They are often attracted to the warm water generated by power plants, and can become too dependent on these areas, which can sometimes lead to death from “cold stress syndrome” if a plant closes and the manatees don’t migrate to warmer waters.
But it’s not all bad news! Thanks to conservation efforts, the population of the Florida manatee has rebounded, and they’re no longer in immediate danger of extinction. So take a minute on this “M-A-D” to be thankful that there are still manatees around to appreciate! And don’t forget to check out our Safari Ltd.® Manatee figure and Manatee Good Luck Minis®!
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: Before evolving into fully aquatic creatures, there were land-dwelling Sirenians that looked pretty much like modern day manatees, but with elephant-like feet!