Slide Manatee and Calf

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MANATEES

“Mermaids”… at least that was what Christopher Columbus thought when he reached the new world. A comparison that’s not very flattering to the nymphs of the sea.  Manatees are marine mammals but are not related to whales and dolphins. Instead, their closest living relatives are elephants.  This is because mammals are divided into orders based on the type and number of teeth they have. Manatee teeth are square shaped molars with ridges on the upper surface for grinding plant material. They are vegetarians. Most herbivores, like horses, have large incisors that can cut the grass and then move them back to their gnawing molars. Manatees lack these incisors. Instead they extend their large lips, much the same as an elephant uses its trunk, to grab seagrass. The “sea cow” pulls it from the bottom of the bay and gnaws it with those big molars.

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Manatee © UF/IFAS

Manatees differ from the whale family in other ways:

  • Their fluke (tail) is more round than forked and they travel MUCH slower.
  • They lack a blow hole but do still have nostrils. They are positioned closer to where ours are so they must extend part of their head out of the water in order to breath.
  • Though some whales lack dorsal fins, all manatees do.
  • They also do not tolerate cold waters very well.
  • They are also not as social. Manatees are usually loners except during breeding season and when gathering in warm springs during the winter.

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Mother and Calf © UF/IFAS

Manatees are migratory as well. They will venture north during the warm months to feed in seagrass beds, including those in our area. As the water cools they return to the warm springs of central Florida or the tropical waters of south Florida. Manatees do not travel out to sea as whales and dolphins do. They slide along the coastline, eating as they go. Locally we see them along the Gulf, in Santa Rosa Sound, and even up into the bays and bayous as they move from Mobile Bay to and from central Florida. See the Citizen Science page to report any manatee sighting in our area.

 

Manatees are exciting to see and can be the highlight of your visit. If you are boating, approach the shore at slow speed and have a spotter looking to make sure you do not hit one of these charismatic creatures.

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Manatee © UF/IFAS

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