American Oceans

The Difference Between a Sea Cow and a Manatee

The manatee and the sea cow are a species of marine mammals that belong to the order Sirenia.

an enormous manatee swimming underwater

The order Sirenia contains what is commonly known as the sea cows, including the three living species of manatees and the dugong.

These animals are primarily herbivores and have unique features that distinguish them from other marine mammals.

These large, slow-moving marine mammals graze on underwater plant life, earning them the nickname “sea cows”, but there was an animal specifically called the Stellers Sea Cow.

However, many people wonder if a sea cow is the same thing as a mantee. We’ll answer that quesiton and many more in the guide below!

Manatee vs Sea Cow

indian manatees eating seagrass

Manatees and sea cows are aquatic mammals that belong to the Sirenia order. They are also known as sirenians, and are the only herbivorous marine animals.

Sirenians are large, slow-moving animals that can grow up to 13 feet long and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

They have paddle-like flippers and a rounded tail, which they use to move through the water. Their skin is thick and wrinkled, and they have a sparse covering of hair.

Common Species and Their Distribution

a dugong eating from the ocean floor

Sea cows are a group of aquatic mammals that include manatees and dugongs. There are four species of manatees and one species of dugong.

The four species of manatees are the West Indian manatee, the Amazonian manatee, the African manatee, and the West African manatee. The dugong is the fifth species in the order Sirenia.

The West Indian manatee is found in the coastal areas of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Amazon river.

The Amazonian manatee is found in the Amazon basin in Brazil. The African manatee is found in the coastal areas of East Africa, while the West African manatee is found in the western coast of Africa.

The dugong is found in the coastal areas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including the waters around Australia.

More specifically, they can be found in the waters around Western Australia, the Bering Sea, and Bering Island, among other locations.

Steller’s sea cow, which was once abundant in the Bering Sea, is now extinct. It was discovered in 1741 and was hunted to extinction by 1768.

Dugongs and manatees are part of the Dugongidae family. They are both herbivores and are known for their gentle nature.

Dugongs are more closely related to elephants than they are to other marine mammals.

Physical Characteristics

manatee close up portrait underwater

Sea cows and manatees are large, slow-moving marine mammals that belong to the order Sirenia.

One of the most noticeable differences is the shape of their tails. Manatees have a large, paddle-shaped tail that is horizontally oriented, while sea cows had a more vertical, fluked tail.

This difference in tail shape is due to the different habitats they inhabit. Manatees are primarily found in shallow, slow-moving rivers and coastal areas, while sea cows lived exclusively in saltwater environments.

Another distinguishing feature is their teeth. Manatees have a set of bristly, horizontal teeth that are continuously replaced throughout their lives. In contrast, sea cows had no teeth in their upper jaw and only a set of flat, molar-like teeth in their lower jaw. These teeth are used to grind up their food, which consists mainly of seagrasses.

In terms of size, sea cows are generally larger than manatees. The average length of a sea cow was around 10 to 12 feet, while manatees typically range from 8 to 13 feet in length. Sea cows can weigh up to 3,500 pounds, while manatees usually weigh between 800 to 1,200 pounds.

The snout of sea cows was also more pronounced than that of manatees. Sea cows had a more pronounced, elongated snout that is used to help them grasp seagrasses. Manatees, on the other hand, have a shorter, rounder snout.

Sea cows also had pair of tusks in their upper jaw, which are used for defense and foraging. Manatees do not have tusks. Additionally, sea cows had a dorsal fin, which is absent in manatees.

Both sea cows and manatees have paddle-like flippers, which they use for swimming and steering. They also have cervical vertebrae that are not fused together, allowing them to turn their heads and necks in all directions.

Habitat and Diet

a mother manatee and calf swimming otgether underwater

Manatees and sea cows have different habitat preferences and diets. Manatees can be found in both freshwater and saltwater environments, such as rivers, bays, and coastal areas.

They prefer shallow, slow-moving waters with abundant vegetation, such as seagrass beds, mangrove channels, and freshwater springs.

In contrast, sea cows were exclusively marine mammals that inhabit shallow coastal waters, estuaries, and bays. They prefer seagrass beds and shallow sandy or muddy bottoms.

Both manatees and sea cows are herbivores, but their diets differ in terms of the types of vegetation they consume.

Manatees feed on a variety of aquatic plants, including seagrasses, algae, and other submerged vegetation. They can consume up to 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation per day.

Sea cows, on the other hand, were specialized feeders that consume mainly seagrasses. They have a unique digestive system that allows them to extract nutrients from tough seagrass blades.

The availability and quality of their preferred vegetation play a crucial role in the habitat selection of manatees and sea cows.

For instance, manatees are known to migrate to freshwater springs during the dry season when the salinity of coastal waters increases, and seagrass beds become scarce.

Similarly, sea cows were highly dependent on seagrass beds for their survival and are vulnerable to habitat loss due to coastal development, pollution, and other human activities.

Behaviour and Lifestyle

dugong eat seagrass in temperate water for diet

Sea cows and manatees share many similarities in their behavior and lifestyle. Both are herbivorous animals that feed on seagrasses, aquatic plants, and algae.

They are slow-moving creatures and spend most of their day grazing on vegetation.

Manatees are known to be migratory species, traveling to warmer waters during the winter months.

They are also known to be social creatures and can be seen in groups. In contrast, sea cows were restricted to the cold waters of the North Pacific and were not migratory. They were also solitary creatures and were rarely seen in groups.

Both sea cows and manatees are herbivores, but their feeding behavior differs. Manatees are known to be generalist grazers, feeding on a wide variety of vegetation.

Sea cows, on the other hand, were specialist grazers, feeding only on a few species of kelp.

In terms of mating behavior, manatees are known to be polygynous, with males mating with multiple females during the breeding season. Sea cows, on the other hand, were monogamous and formed long-term pair bonds.

When it comes to speed, manatees are known to be slow swimmers, with an average speed of 5 mph. Sea cows were even slower, with an average speed of 2-3 mph.

Conservation Status and Threats

a manatee calf and adult swimming together

Manatees are threatened species, and their populations have been declining in recent years.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all three species of manatees (West Indian, Amazonian, and African) are listed as vulnerable to extinction, while the dugong is listed as endangered.

The primary threat to manatees is habitat loss, which is caused by human activities such as coastal development, pollution, and boat traffic.

These activities can disrupt the seagrass beds and other aquatic habitats that these animals rely on for food and shelter. Hunting and poaching are also major threats, particularly in areas where these animals are valued for their meat, oil, and other products.

Conservation efforts have been underway for several decades to protect manatees from these threats.

The IUCN has established a Manatee and Dugong Specialist Group to coordinate research and conservation efforts, and many countries have implemented laws and regulations to protect these animals and their habitats. However, much work remains to be done to ensure the survival of these species.

Despite these efforts, the future of manatees remains uncertain, and their conservation status is a matter of ongoing concern.

It is important that we continue to monitor their populations and habitats, and to take action to address the threats that they face, in order to ensure their survival for future generations.

Historical Significance and Folklore

a person snorkeling and touching a manatee

Manatees and sea cows have been known to humans for thousands of years. These gentle giants have a significant place in mythology, folklore, and history.

Sirens, mermaids, and other mythical sea creatures have been part of human folklore for centuries.

These creatures were often depicted as half-human and half-fish and were believed to lure sailors to their death.

Some historians believe that the legend of the mermaid may have been inspired by manatees or dugongs.

These creatures have a tail that resembles that of a fish, and their habit of swimming near the surface of the water may have led sailors to believe that they were seeing a half-human, half-fish creature.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter manatees. He mistook them for mermaids and wrote in his journal that they were “not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men.”

Columbus’s description of the manatee as a mermaid shows how the creature has been part of human folklore for centuries.

In many cultures, the manatee or sea cow has been associated with good luck, protection, and healing. In West African folklore, manatees are believed to be the protectors of the ocean and are associated with the goddess Yemaya.

In Brazil, the Amazonian manatee is part of the folklore and culture of the indigenous people of the Amazon basin.

In addition to their place in folklore, manatees and sea cows have a significant place in history. The Steller’s sea cow, which was native to the Bering Sea, was hunted to extinction in the 18th century.

The extinction of the Steller’s sea cow is a reminder of the impact that humans can have on the environment. Today, all three species of manatee and the dugong are classified as vulnerable or endangered.

Despite their historical significance and cultural importance, manatees and sea cows are often mistaken for other creatures.

In some parts of the world, they are known as “sea pigs” or “sea elephants.” This confusion is likely due to their resemblance to other animals, as well as their unique appearance and behavior.

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