August 1, 2011

The other day while out biking, I noticed a passing car with a bumper sticker that showed a whale’s tale and the words “gentle giants.” I’ve always been interested in whales and know that in spite of their massive size, they can at times be incredibly gentle. The same is true of other larger animals Comet and I have met at the MSPCA such as horses, cows, and sheep. But when I stop and think of which animal in the wild I think might be the most gentle, I immediately think of the manatee. These beautiful creatures are at the top of my list, but, unfortunately, not enough people understand them and their critical plight to survive.

Manatees, or sea cows as they’re sometimes called, are distant relatives of the elephant, and are grayish with wrinkly skin, front flippers, and a flat paddle-like tail. They are most commonly found in warmer coastal water, bays, and slow-moving rivers. Variations of the species are found in several different places around the globe, including South America, Africa, and in the U.S. they are mainly found in Florida. In the winter, some manatees migrate to warmer waters and have been known to frequent the Carolina coast and Louisiana. They tend to be solitary creatures or ones who keep company with only a few others.
These gentle giants are also slow-moving grazers without any natural predators. Florida manatees can be as long as 8 to 12 feet and weigh more than 1500 pounds! When born after a year of gestation, they are 3 to 4 feet long and about 65 pounds. They are mainly herbivores who need to eat frequently, so they like areas rich in sea grasses and other types of nutritious vegetation like weeds and algae.  And they eat a LOT; over 10% of their body weight in one day!  Manatees also need lots of rest and prefer to do so at the bottom of shallow areas of water between 3 and 7 feet, or just below the surface. Because they are mammals and need air to breathe, they typically surface every 3-5 minutes, but can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes—amazing!

Manatees are listed as Endangered and are protected in the United States under both the Marine Mammals Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). You would think that with so much legal protection against hunting, harassing, capturing, or killing these animals that they would be flourishing. But unfortunately, they are not. What is their biggest threat? Collisons with motorboats. The propellers and hulls of these boats maim and kill these slow moving and sensitive beauties. Manatees are also affected by fishing lines, hooks, and nets, habitat loss, and global warming, as well as an array of natural causes. 

Fortunately, there are many people who love manatees and want to see populations recover. Educating and policing boaters and fishermen is key to the survival of manatees. Signs need to continue to be posted as to where manatees are likely to be living, and boats need to reduce speeds, lift propellers, and even keep away. Fishing apparatuses that is left in the way of manatees should be removed, and the perpetrators found and prosecuted.  Additionally, wildlife biologists need to be continually funded to study manatees and their habitats so that strides to bring the manatee back to healthy populations will evolve. If left unbothered in their natural environment, manatees can live 40-60 years in the wild. Let’s all take responsibility for seeing that these gloriously unique creatures have a chance.
How to help Animals: Read more, Speak on their behalf, Educate yourself and others.

Visit some of these websites:

Defenders of Wildlife
National Geographic Society
Planet Green
Save the Manatees Club