By Terri Estes
I am sitting here enjoying my vacation in Florida, so I decided to write about one of this state’s native treasures — the Manatee. Manatees are fascinating creatures. These extremely large, slow-moving mammals hang out in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they spend their time feeding on sea grass, mango leaves and algae. These herbivores munch on food for almost half the day where they consume almost 10% of their body weight in plant mass every day. With weights that can be up to 1,200 lbs., that is a LOT of vegetation!
The manatees in Florida spend their lives on the cusp between salt water and fresh water. They are able to maintain the correct balance of salt in their bodies through an internal regulation system that works with their kidney system to make sure their salt content never gets too high. This allows the manatee to easily move between the two ecosystems.
The Florida manatees need warm water to survive. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, they stick to water that is 60 degrees or warmer. They may look insulated and fat, but the large body of the manatee is mostly made up of stomach and intestines. In the colder months, they head up to warm river tributaries and winter there.
Manatees go to the surface every three to five minutes to breathe; however, they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. When they do take a breath, 90 percent of the air in their lungs is exchanged, whereas humans tend to replace 10 percent per breath.
The closest living relative on earth to the manatee is the elephant. Manatees evolved from the same land animal as elephants over 50 million years ago. Manatees, like their distant relatives the elephants, continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives with the older teeth falling out, and new teeth regrowing.
Manatees are gentle giants and are listed as vulnerable to extinction. They have no natural predators, but are vulnerable to colder winters, red tides and boat propellers. The good news is the manatee is federally protected and also protected by the State of Florida. Hopefully, the marvelous manatees will be with us for a long time!