The almost-hairless manatee is 9 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) long and weighs between 1,100 and 3,300 pounds (500 to 1,500 kilograms), depending on the species. Manatees never stop growing as long as they are alive. The tail is paddle-like, and the flipper-like forelimbs have three to four fingernails except in the Amazonian manatee, which has no fingernails. Manatees are brownish gray. Their eyes are tiny and are placed on the sides of the head. Their flexible lips help them manipulate food so that they can get it into their mouths.
Manatees have a well-developed sense of smell and hear very well. Their eyesight, however, is not very good. Manatees communicate through a series of whistles and chirps.
The manatee is a relative of the elephant. The nose or snout of a manatee acts much like the trunk of an elephant in that it is used to gather food and bring it to the mouth. Their fingernails or toenails, depending on how you look at it, are also similar to those of the elephant.
Manatees live on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In the west, they are found from the southeastern United States throughout the Caribbean region to southeastern Brazil and in rivers of the Amazon River Basin. Manatees migrate, travel from one region to another, seasonally, to Florida coastal waters during the winter months. In the east, they live along the African coast, from Senegal to Angola.
Manatees live in shallow coastal waters and estuary (EST-yoo-air-ee) waters, where saltwater and fresh water mix. They also need areas where marine vegetation is plentiful.
Manatees are primarily vegetarian, though they do sometimes ingest shrimp, snails, or crabs as they feed on ocean-floor plants. A large manatee eats up to 200 pounds (91 kilograms) of sea grass and algae (AL-jee) each day.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Manatees are semi-social and usually found in mother-calf pairs. They communicate using sound, sight, taste, and touch. Communication is particularly important for developing and maintaining the cow-calf bond.
Manatees are polygamous (puh-LIH-guh-mus), having more than one mate. In fact, a female can be pursued by as many as twenty males during the breeding season, so it is virtually impossible to determine who the father of a calf is. Males do not seem to take part in caring for the young.
Female manatees give birth every two-and-a-half to three years. Usually only one calf is born after a year-long pregnancy. Depending on the species, manatees are ready to breed anywhere between the ages of two to eleven, and they do so throughout the year. Calves are born weighing 60 to 70 pounds (27 to 32 kilograms).
Manatees are unable to hold their breath for long periods of time, so they surface for air about every three minutes except during sleep, at which time they can rest for twenty minutes before surfacing. Manatees have no large predator, animal that hunts them for food, other than humans.
MANATEES AND PEOPLE
It is not uncommon for a manatee to have scars on its back due to collision with a recreational boat, and these accidents are the primary cause of death for the manatee population. Though law prohibits the deliberate killing of manatees, they are still hunted for food in many areas.
All manatees are considered Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The main cause of death is habitat destruction and human activity, specifically recreational boating accidents.