The manatee (genus Trichechus) can be any of the three species of large aquatic mammals that constitute the family Trichechidae (order Sirenia). The manatee has a stout, tapered body ending in a rounded flipper; the forelimbs are flippers close to the head and there are no hind limbs. The head is rather small, with a square, bristly snout. Adults range in length from 2.5 to 4.5 m (8 to 15 feet) and may reach nearly 700 kg (1,500 pounds) in weight.
Manatees are slow-moving creatures that feed on aquatic vegetation in shallow coastal waters, estuaries, and slow-flowing rivers. They live singly or in small family groups, sometimes forming herds of 15 to 20 individuals. Members of a group frequently communicate by muzzle-to-muzzle contact and, when alarmed, by chirplike squeaking. The sense of sight is very poorly developed.
All three species are declining in population. The Caribbean manatee (T. manatus) is found in Florida and sparsely along the Atlantic coast of the southeastern United States and the Gulf and Caribbean coasts to northern South America. The Amazonian manatee (T. inunguis), which inhabits rivers of the Amazon and Orinoco drainages, is listed in the Red Data Book as an endangered species. The West African manatee (T. senegalensis) is found in rivers in tropical West Africa.
Adult manatees have no natural enemies but in some areas are heavily hunted for meat, hides, and oil. Where boat traffic is heavy, manatees are often injured or killed by boat propellers. They are often protected by law because of their usefulness in keeping waterways clear of aquatic vegetation. The manatee or its relative, the dugong, may have given rise to the folklore of mermaids.
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