American Oceans

What Does a Manatee Eat?

Manatees, often known as gentle giants, are fascinating marine mammals that primarily inhabit warm, shallow waters. Ever wonder what do manatees eat?

manatee eating

These aquatic creatures are mainly herbivorous, meaning they primarily consume plant-based materials. In order to fuel their large bodies, manatees need to consume a substantial amount of nutritious food every day.

The diet of a manatee primarily consists of a diverse range of aquatic plants found in both freshwater and saltwater environments. Some common types of plants consumed by these mammals include seagrasses, marine algae, water hyacinth, and mangrove leaves.

Occasionally, manatees have been observed consuming small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks while grazing on aquatic plant beds.

To effectively process their plant-based diet, manatees possess specialized hindgut digestive systems similar to horses, allowing them to break down the fibrous materials found in their food.

With the need to consume such large quantities of low-energy plant material, these marine herbivores are uniquely adapted to their diet, which is essential for their survival in their natural habitats.

Manatee Diet Overview

Manatees are primarily herbivorous animals, feeding on a wide variety of underwater and shoreline vegetation.

sea grass in the shallows

Their diet consists largely of aquatic plants, with over 60 species being consumed by these gentle giants. Manatees in Florida, for example, have been known to feed on turtle grass, manatee grass, shoal grass, mangrove leaves, various algae, water hyacinth, acorns, and hydrilla.

These marine mammals forage for about 7 hours a day and eat an impressive 7-15% of their body weight. This amounts to roughly 150 pounds of food daily for an average 1,000-pound manatee. Their diet includes both freshwater and saltwater plants, such as:

  • Saltwater Plants:
    • Seagrasses
    • Marine algae
    • Manatee grass
    • Sea clover
    • Shoal grass
    • Turtle grass

Additional components of a manatee’s diet can include small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, which are consumed while grazing on seagrass beds. As hindgut digesters, manatees have a unique adaptation to handle their bulky, low-energy food sources. They possess intestines as long as 30 meters (100 feet) to effectively break down and digest the vegetation.

With a large portion of their diet consisting of plants with low nutritional quality, manatees must eat often and in large quantities to meet their dietary requirements.

This leads to the species spending a significant portion of their day feeding, up to 7 hours at a time. This ensures that they consume enough nutrients to maintain their large body size and overall health.

Aquatic Plants Consumption

Manatees primarily feed on aquatic plants, consuming both freshwater and saltwater varieties.

They are specially adapted to consume and process these plants, with prehensile lips and specialized sensory bristles helping them navigate and manipulate their food sources.

Manatees typically consume between 4 to 9 percent of their body weight in plant matter each day, averaging around 32 pounds of aquatic plants.

Seagrass Varieties

Seagrasses make up a significant portion of a manatee’s diet. They consume various types of seagrasses, including:

  • Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum)
  • Manatee grass (Halodule wrightii)
  • Shoal grass (Halodule beaudettei)
  • Widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima)

These seagrasses are typically found in shallow coastal areas, providing an essential habitat and food source for manatees and a variety of other marine species.

Manatee Feeding at Cape Canaveral

Algae Types

Besides seagrasses, manatees also consume various types of algae throughout their range. These include:

  • Marine algae
  • Manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme)
  • Sea clover (Halophila spp.)

While not the primary source of nutrition for manatees, algae still play a vital role in their diet, contributing valuable nutrients and providing an alternative food source when seagrasses are scarce.

Additionally, manatees consume a variety of freshwater plants, further diversifying their diet and enabling them to adapt to various habitats. Some of the freshwater plants manatees eat include alligator weed, floating hyacinth, hydrilla, musk grass, pickerelweed, water lettuce, and water celery.

Feeding Behavior and Frequencies

Manatees, being primarily herbivorous creatures, have a diet consisting of various aquatic plants. In this section, we will discuss the daily food intake, foraging patterns, and frequencies of these gentle aquatic mammals.

Daily Food Intake

Indian manatees (Latin Trichechus manatus) eat algae

Manatees consume more than a tenth of their body weight in food every single day. Their diet is comprised of over 60 species of underwater, shoreline, and floating plants, with seagrass being their primary source of food. Some common types of seagrass include manatee grass, shoal grass, and turtle grass.

In addition to seagrass, manatees also feed on mangrove leaves, various types of algae, water hyacinth, acorns, and hydrilla. Their diverse diet enables them to thrive in both freshwater and saltwater environments.

Foraging Patterns

Manatees are known to forage for food for about seven hours per day. They use their strong, flexible lips and front flippers to tear off pieces of vegetation, which they then consume. To aid in the consumption of seagrass, manatees utilize their flippers to dig out the nutritious rhizomes.

These mammals are opportunistic feeders, meaning they take advantage of the availability of food in their environment. As a result, they often come close to river mouths and other banks of water bodies to feed on plants near the banks.

Manatees have horny, ridged pads on the roof of their mouths, which allow them to efficiently break down plant matter during the feeding process.

Nutritional Requirements

Energy and Caloric Needs

Manatees are large herbivorous mammals that require significant amounts of energy and calories to support their daily activities. They forage for about 7 hours a day, consuming 7-15% of their body weight in plant material. This translates to approximately 150 pounds of food per day for an average 1,000-pound manatee.

Manatees can eat both freshwater and saltwater plants, including seagrasses, marine algae, manatee grass, sea clover, shoal grass, and turtle grass. They also consume various other vegetation like mangrove leaves, water hyacinth, acorns, and hydrilla.

Vitamins and Minerals Necessity

In addition to their caloric needs, manatees require essential vitamins and minerals to maintain their overall health. They obtain these nutrients from the diverse assortment of plants they consume. The various plant species deliver a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals for manatees, helping in maintaining their growth, reproduction, and overall physiological functions. Some of the crucial minerals and vitamins include calcium for bone health, vitamin A for vision, and various B-complex vitamins for energy metabolism.

While the majority of the manatee’s diet comprises plant material, they have been known to occasionally consume small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. This diversity in their diet could provide additional sources of essential nutrients.

Human Impacts on Manatee Diet

Habitat Loss

Manatees rely on a variety of aquatic plants, seagrasses, and vegetation near shorelines for their diet. The loss of their natural habitat, mainly due to human activities such as agricultural land conversion and construction, has a significant impact on the availability of these food sources.

In particular, this can lead to a decline in the diversity of plant species that manatees consume, putting additional stress on their populations.

Water Pollution

Water pollution caused by human activities, such as fertilizer runoff and industrial waste discharge, poses a significant threat to the quality of water sources that manatees rely on for their food.

The contamination of these water bodies can lead to the loss of plant species that are essential to the manatee’s diet, further endangering their survival.

Moreover, polluted water sources can result in the growth of harmful algal blooms, which may lead to a reduction in aquatic plant life or the production of toxins that can affect both manatees and their food sources. This, in turn, negatively impacts the health and well-being of manatees.

In summary, the ongoing human activities that lead to habitat loss and water pollution have direct consequences on the dietary habits of manatees. It is crucial to understand and address these impacts in order to promote the conservation and survival of these amazing creatures.

Add comment