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Living with Florida Manatees: Fun Facts About Our Beloved “Ocean Potatoes”

Posted by Lacey Hagler on Tuesday, December 29th, 2020 at 11:25am.

Also known as an “ocean potato” or “sea cow”,  the beloved Florida manatee is a gentle giant you’ll see calmly cruising throughout Jupiter Intracoastal waters. Manatees have a very friendly disposition, and while it may be tempting to feed or give them fresh water from your dock, it is illegal as they are a protected species.

Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. It is illegal to feed, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, annoy, or molest manatees. For more information about state laws, please visit https://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/manatee/.

On the other hand, it’s wonderful to experience these calm creatures nearby. Here are some interesting manatee facts!

  1. There are 3 different species of manatee; West African, Amazonian, and West Indian. The West Indian Manatee is what you will see in Florida waterways.
  2. Manatees are believed to account for many of the early explorer’s “mermaid” sightings. During his first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus caught a glimpse of three mermaids, writing that “they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” 
  3. An adult manatee can eat 10% of its weight in a day. A human only eats about 2%. With weights of up to 1,200 pounds, that is a whole lot of greenery!
  4. Manatees are herbivores who graze on grass, weeds, and algae.
  5. Their diet is a large part of why manatees are such good indicators of an ecosystem’s health; when manatees are thriving, it means that their immediate environment is flourishing with life.
  6. Manatees use their flippers to walk along the bottom of the body of water, feeling for food. When they find it, they scoop it up toward their mouths with their flipper.
  7. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, manatees stick to water that is 60 degrees or warmer. They may look fat and insulated, but the large body of the manatee is mostly made up of their stomach and intestines! In colder months, they find their way to warm river tributaries or warm water outputs from power plants like our local Manatee Lagoon in West Palm Beach. In 2010 at least 246 manatees died in Florida due to cold stress from the colder-than-normal winter.
  8. Manatees can reach 13-feet long and weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
  9. Manatees, like their elephant relatives, continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives with the older teeth at the front falling out and new teeth growing in at the back of their mouth.
  10. Manatees usually mull around at about 5 miles an hour, but can motor up to 15 miles per hour in short bursts. Because they are such slow-moving animals most of the time, algae and barnacles can often be found on the backs of manatees. 
  11. Manatees are mammals, and they have one baby every two to five years. The babies are born underwater. Females are pregnant for about 1 year. The young nurse for 1-½-2 years.
  12. Manatees live in the water but they need air to survive. They surface every few minutes when active and can stay under for as long as 20 minutes if still.
  13. Babies need help getting up to the surface for their first breath. Shortly after birth they are able to swim on their own: usually within an hour.
  14. Most mammals have seven neck vertebrae but the both the manatee and the sloth have just six. This means that manatees can’t turn their heads.
  15. The manatee is closer related to elephants than other marine creatures.
  16. Manatee brains are smooth (compared to our own that have the familiar ins and outs of cortical folds) and the ratio of their brain to their body size is the lowest of any mammal. They may not be as clever as dolphins, but manatees can learn basic tasks, are extremely sensitive to touch and can differentiate colors.
  17. Manatees face a number of dangers in their native waters: boating accidents can harm or even kill manatees and things like plastics in the water can cause health problems. You can learn more about how to protect manatees even if you live thousands of miles away, by visiting Save the Manatee. 



Report harassment by calling 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922). Cellular phone users can also call *FWC or #FWC, or send a text to Tip@MyFWC.com.


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