American Oceans

Manatee Teeth: Anatomy and Function

Manatees are fascinating mammals with a distinctive appearance and a docile disposition.


The fangs of these critters are one feature that is frequently disregarded. Manatees are vegetarians, yet they have an unusual set of teeth that are crucial to their existence.

The teeth of manatees are distinctive in that they are continuously replaced over the course of the animal’s lifetime. Manatees are the only mammals that lack front teeth.

Instead, they possess a set of molars that are utilized to chew up plants such as seagrass. Four rows of these molars are constantly being forced forward by the eruption of new teeth at the back of the jaw.

For manatees, who depend on their teeth to survive, the tooth-replacement process is crucial. Manatees may weigh up to 1,200 pounds, and to stay that weight, they need to consume a lot of seagrass and other plants every day.

They couldn’t effectively grind their food if they didn’t have teeth, and they couldn’t thrive in their natural environment.

Anatomy of Manatee Teeth

Manatees are herbivorous aquatic mammals that use their teeth to graze on seagrasses, water hyacinths, and other aquatic vegetation.


Their teeth are unique in that they are replaced horizontally, as opposed to vertically as in most other mammals. Manatee teeth are similar to the molars of some other mammals and are located in the back half of the lower and upper jaws.

Types of Teeth

Manatees have two types of teeth: incisors and molars. The incisors are located at the front of the mouth, and they are used to grasp and tear vegetation.

The molars are located at the back of the mouth, and they are used to grind the vegetation into small pieces that can be easily swallowed. Manatees have up to six molars in each jaw, and they are replaced throughout their lives as they wear down from grinding vegetation.

Tooth Replacement

Manatee teeth are replaced throughout their lives in a process known as hind molar progression.

As the front molars wear down, they are replaced by new molars that grow in at the back of the jaw and move forward. The old molars are pushed forward and eventually fall out, making room for the new molars.

This process continues throughout the manatee’s life, with the molars moving forward and being replaced as needed.

Manatee teeth are unique in their horizontal replacement process, which allows them to continue to grind vegetation throughout their lives.

This is important for their survival, as they rely on vegetation for their diet. Understanding the anatomy and replacement process of manatee teeth is important for conservation efforts, as it can help researchers better understand the dietary needs and health of these gentle giants.

Manatees: The Gentle Giants

Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that inhabit the rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean.

young manatee close up

They are known for their slow movements and friendly demeanor, making them a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. In this section, we will explore the physical characteristics, habitat, and diet of these fascinating creatures.

Physical Characteristics

Manatees are large, slow-moving mammals that can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh over 1,000 pounds.

They have thick, wrinkled skin that is grayish-brown in color and covered in algae, barnacles, and other marine organisms. Their eyes are small and located on the sides of their heads, while their whiskers are long and sensitive, helping them navigate through murky waters.

One of the most interesting features of manatees is their teeth. Unlike most mammals, manatees have no front teeth.

Instead, they have a set of molars located in the back of their mouths that are used for grinding and chewing seagrass and other vegetation.

Their teeth are constantly being replaced, with new teeth growing at the back of their jaws and moving forward at a rate of about one centimeter per month.


Manatees are found in a variety of habitats, including rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters.

They prefer shallow, slow-moving waters that are rich in vegetation, such as seagrass beds and mangrove forests. During the winter months, manatees migrate to warmer waters, such as the springs and canals of central Florida.


Manatees are herbivores, feeding primarily on seagrass and other aquatic vegetation.

They have a unique digestive system that allows them to extract nutrients from tough, fibrous plants. Manatees can consume up to 10% of their body weight in vegetation each day, and spend most of their time grazing on the bottom of the sea floor.

The Importance of Manatee Teeth

Manatees are herbivorous marine mammals that feed on a variety of aquatic plants.

Their teeth play a critical role in their feeding habits and overall health. In this section, we will discuss the importance of manatee teeth, including their features, wear and tear, and replacement.

Teeth as a Feature

Manatees have a unique set of teeth that are perfectly adapted to their diet. They have 24 to 32 molars located in the back of their mouth, which are used for grinding and chewing their food.

These molars are continually being worn down by the abrasive plants the manatee eats. As the teeth wear down, new molars grow in the back of the mouth and gradually move forward. This process is known as horizontal tooth replacement and is continuous throughout their lives.

Tooth Wear and Tear

Manatee teeth are subject to a lot of wear and tear due to their abrasive diet. The constant grinding and chewing of tough vegetation can cause their teeth to wear down quickly.

As a result, manatees must consume large quantities of food to maintain their weight and health. Additionally, manatees have no “biting” teeth, only “grinding” teeth. This means that they cannot bite off chunks of vegetation but must instead rely on their molars to grind it down into small pieces.

Tooth Damage and Replacement

Manatee teeth can also become damaged or broken due to accidental collisions with boats or other objects in their environment. In some cases, a damaged tooth may fall out, leaving a gap in the manatee’s mouth.

However, the tooth replacement process ensures that new teeth will grow in to fill the gap. This is critical for the manatee’s health, as missing teeth can make it difficult for them to eat and digest their food properly.

Manatees in Captivity

Manatees are often kept in captivity for research, rehabilitation, and educational purposes. In captivity, manatees receive regular veterinary care and dental check-ups to ensure their overall health and well-being.

Dental Care

Manatees in captivity receive regular dental care to maintain their dental health. Their teeth are cleaned, polished, and checked for any signs of decay or damage.

Manatees have a unique dental structure, with four rows of teeth that are constantly being replaced throughout their lives. In captivity, manatees are provided with a diet that is similar to their natural diet in the wild, which helps to maintain their dental health and prevent tooth decay.

Tooth Replacement in Captivity

In captivity, manatees may lose teeth due to injury, decay, or natural wear and tear.

Fortunately, manatees have a unique ability to continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives. In captivity, if a manatee loses a tooth, it will eventually be replaced by a new one.

Manatees in captivity are also provided with a variety of enrichment activities to help keep them mentally and physically stimulated.

These activities can include puzzles, toys, and other objects that encourage the manatees to use their teeth and jaw muscles.

Manatees in the Wild

Manatees are gentle, slow-moving herbivores that are found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on sea grass, mangrove leaves, and algae.

These mammals are fascinating creatures that are well-adapted to their aquatic lifestyle. Here are some interesting facts about manatees and their life in the wild.

Mating and Herd Life

Manatees are social animals that live in herds. During the mating season, which typically occurs in the winter months, males compete for the attention of females.

The males will often chase the females and engage in elaborate courtship rituals, such as touching noses or rubbing against each other. Once a female is pregnant, she will carry the calf for about a year before giving birth.

Manatees are also known for their close-knit family bonds. Mothers and calves stay together for several years, and adult manatees often form strong friendships with one another.

These social bonds help manatees to survive in the wild, as they can work together to find food and protect each other from predators.


Despite their large size, manatees have several natural predators in the wild. Sharks, crocodiles, and alligators are known to attack manatees, particularly young or weak individuals.

In addition, manatees are sometimes killed by boat propellers or entangled in fishing nets.

Boating and Manatee Teeth

One of the biggest threats to manatees in the wild is collisions with boats. Manatees are slow swimmers and often surface to breathe, making them vulnerable to being struck by boats.

In fact, boat strikes are the leading cause of death for manatees in Florida.

Manatee teeth are an important adaptation that help these animals to survive in the wild. Manatees have no biting teeth, only grinding teeth.

A manatee’s teeth (all molars) are constantly being replaced. New teeth come in at the back of the jaw and move forward horizontally about a centimeter a month. The front molars eventually fall out and are replaced by the teeth behind them.

Eating gritty vegetation abrades the teeth, particularly the enamel crown; however, research indicates that the enamel structure in manatee molars is weak.

To protect manatees from boat strikes, it is important for boaters to be aware of their presence and to follow speed limits in areas where manatees are known to live.

Many areas have designated manatee zones, where boats must slow down and be extra cautious. By taking these precautions, we can help to protect these gentle giants and ensure that they continue to thrive in the wild.

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