Manatee (Trichechus manatus) | U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2024)

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Overview

Characteristics

Overview

The West Indian manatee is a large herbivorous (plant-eating) marine mammal. There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus).

As its name suggests, the Florida manatee is native to Florida and is found primarily in coastal areas throughout the state. Manatees are cold-intolerant so their distribution in the US varies significantly between the warmer and colder months of the year. During the warmer months, the Florida manatee’s range may extend west to Texas and north to Delaware Bay and potentially beyond. As water temperatures decrease in the fall, manatees return to peninsular Florida and their warm water sites. Antillean manatee is found along the Mexican Gulf of Mexico coastline, down through Central America, and continuing to Brazil’s northeastern Atlantic coastline, as well as in the Caribbean Greater Antilles.

Today, the range-wide population estimate for the West Indian manatee is at least 13,000 manatees. When aerial surveys began in 1991, the minimum population estimate in Florida was 1,267 manatees. Today and with the use of more robust survey methodology, at least 8,350 are estimated to inhabit Florida, representing a significant increase over the past 33 years. However, the best available information for the Antillean manatee indicates abundance is declining in most of the Antillean subspecies' range. A rough estimate indicates there are less than 7,000 Antillean manatees in the wild.

The health and survival of the West Indian manatee is threatened by human-related impacts such as collisions with watercraft, habitat loss (both the loss of forage and warm water), entanglements in fishing gear and other marine debris, entrapments due to high water events, crushing in navigation locks or other water control structures, as well as natural events such as cold snaps and red tide.

Manatees are federally protected under theEndangered SpeciesActand under theMarine Mammal Protection Act.

Scientific Name

Trichechus manatus

Common Name

West Indian Manatee

manatee

Caribbean manatee

Kingdom

Animalia

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Genus

Trichechus

Species

Trichechus manatus

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics

Size & Shape

Manatees are large marine mammals with two flippers and a large, paddle-shaped tail. The flippers are used to steer and hold vegetation. Their powerful tails are used for swimming, helping them reach speeds of 15 miles per hour for very short periods.

Adult manatees are typically 9-10 feet long but can reach lengths of more than 13 feet. Newborn manatees average four to four and a half feet in length.

Weight

Adult manatees typically weigh around 1,000 pounds but some can weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. At birth, a manatee calf weighs around 60 to 70 pounds.

Color & Pattern

Manatees are typically greyish brown in color. They have sparse hairs spread across their bodies, with bristles about the muzzle.

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics

Habitat

Manatees live in marine, brackish, and freshwater systems in coastal and riverine areas throughout their range. Preferred habitats include areas near the shore featuring submerged aquatic vegetation like seagrass and eelgrass. They feed along grass bed margins with access to deep water channels, where they may flee when threatened. Florida manatees can be found throughout Florida for most of the year. However, they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time, and during the winter months, cold temperatures keep the population concentrated mostly in peninsular Florida. To keep warm in cooler months, many manatees rely on the warm water from natural springs, power plant outfalls, and passive thermal basins.

Marine

Having to do with water

Coastal

River or Stream

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics

Food

Due to their eating habits, manatees are nicknamedsea cows,because they eat seagrasses and other aquatic plants along coastal waters, marshes and rivers. As an interesting and unique adaptation to their diet (which includes plants and other material that may wear down their teeth), manatees exhibit tooth replacement with molars that are continually replaced throughout their life.

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics

Behavior

Manatees are herbivores or plant eaters and spend up to 8 hours a day eating seagrass or other vegetation. They may consume up to 10% of their body weight per day.

Manatees typically surface every three to five minutes to breathe but can hold their breath as long as 20 minutes.

Manatee mothers nurse their calves by providing them with milk from teats located just behind their flippers. The mother manatee cares for her calf for about two years. This is a very important time for the manatee calf as, during this time, the adult female teaches her offspring critical survival skills: how to migrate, where the warm water sites are, and where to find forage, freshwater, and sheltered areas.

Geography

Characteristics

Range

Historically, West Indian manatees were found along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, throughout the Caribbean, and as far south as Brazil’s Atlantic coastline. However, due to hunting,habitat fragmentationand loss, and other factors, manatees have disappeared from various parts of their range. For example, manatee hunts were common until the early 1900s, and as a result the species is no longer found in Guadeloupe and other islands in the Lesser Antilles.

Today West Indian manatees are found in the southeastern U.S., eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and in the Bahamas.

The Florida manatee primarily inhabits Florida’s coastal waters, rivers and springs. During the warmer months, some Florida manatees travel up the eastern coastline into Georgia and the Carolinas with a few animals traveling as far north as Massachusetts. In the Gulf, Florida manatees can be found west through coastal Louisiana and occasionally as far west as Texas.

The Antillean manatee is found along the Gulf of Mexico coast, through the Caribbean, and along Brazil’s northeastern Atlantic coastline. The species occurs in a patchy distribution from northern Mexico to the northeastern coast of Brazil, as well as in the Caribbean. However, historical accounts, including several hunting accounts, suggest that Antillean manatees were once more common throughout their range. Manatees may travel hundreds of miles during a year’s time, preferring to travel along channels and shorelines.

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Manatee (Trichechus manatus) | U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2024)
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