American Oceans

West Indian Manatee

The West Indian manatee, also known as the North American manatee, is a large aquatic mammal that is native to warm coastal areas of the Caribbean.

a florida manatee also known as a west indian manatee

It is a gentle and slow-moving creature that feeds on underwater plants and uses its whiskers to navigate.

The West Indian manatee is a fascinating animal that is loved by many, and its unique characteristics make it an important part of the ecosystem.

Manatees are known for their gentle nature, and they are often referred to as sea cows because of their eating habits.

These creatures feed on seagrasses and other aquatic plants, and they can consume up to 100 kilograms of sea grasses and plant leaves daily.

The West Indian manatee is an opportunistic feeder, and they are also known to eat invertebrates and fish. Their molars are often worn down and are continually replaced throughout their life due to their abrasive diet.

Manatees are an important part of the ecosystem, and they play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of the underwater ecosystem.

They are also an important cultural and economic resource, and they are loved by many. Despite their importance, manatees are facing many threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and boat strikes.

As a result, conservation efforts are underway to protect these gentle creatures and ensure their survival for future generations.


Description

The West Indian Manatee, also known as the North American Manatee, is a large aquatic mammal that is native to warm coastal areas of the Caribbean, from the eastern US to northern Brazil.

manatee swimming

It is part of the Trichechus Manatus species, which includes two subspecies: the Antillean Manatee (Trichechus Manatus Manatus) and the Florida Manatee (Trichechus Manatus Latirostris).

Physical Characteristics

The West Indian Manatee is a large, gray aquatic mammal that can weigh up to 1,300 pounds and grow up to 13 feet in length.

Its body is cylindrical in shape and tapers to a flat, paddle-shaped tail. It has two forelimbs, called flippers, with three to four nails on each flipper.

Its head and face are wrinkled with whiskers on the snout. The manatee’s closest relatives are the elephant and the hyrax (a small, gopher-sized mammal).

Habitat and Distribution

West Indian Manatees prefer shallow, slow-moving waters of rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals, and coastal areas.

They can move easily between freshwater and saltwater environments, but prefer freshwater.

They are typically found in the warm waters of the tropics, but can also be found in cooler waters during the winter months.

The West Indian Manatee is distributed throughout the Caribbean, from the eastern US to northern Brazil.

Its habitat is threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, and boat collisions.

The loss of freshwater rivers and shallow coastal areas due to human development has also impacted the manatee’s habitat.


Behavior and Diet

The West Indian Manatee is a slow-moving, herbivorous mammal that spends most of its time grazing in shallow waters.

a manatee swimming underwater

They are known to eat a variety of plant species, including sea grasses, algae, and other vegetation.

Feeding Habits

Manatees are known to consume up to 10% of their body weight in vegetation each day.

They use their sensitive lips to grasp and pull vegetation into their mouths, and their molars to grind it down.

They have a “conveyor belt” of teeth that are continuously replaced throughout their life.

Some of the abrasive plants they eat can wear down their teeth, but they are constantly replaced, ensuring that they always have a functional set.

Mating and Reproduction

Manatees reach sexual maturity at around 4 years of age. During mating season, males gather in mating herds and compete for the attention of females.

Females give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of around 12 months.

The calf stays with its mother for up to 2 years, during which time the mother provides milk and protection.

Social Behavior

Manatees are generally solitary animals, but they can sometimes be found in small groups.

They are known to be curious and friendly towards humans, but it is important to remember that they are a protected species and should not be disturbed.


Predators and Mortality

West Indian manatees are generally considered a species without natural predators.

Manatee

However, they are still vulnerable to predation by sharks, crocodiles, and alligators, especially young manatees who are less able to defend themselves.

Mothers are extremely protective of their young, but they have limited means of defense and can only rely on their tails to fend off predators.

Predators

Sharks are known to attack manatees, especially when they are sick or injured.

Bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great whites are among the species that have been observed attacking manatees.

Crocodiles and alligators can also pose a threat to manatees, especially in areas where they coexist.

Mortality Events

Despite being relatively free from predators, manatees are still vulnerable to other threats that can cause mortality events.

Starvation can be a major cause of death, especially during periods of drought or when food sources are limited.

Pollution is also a significant threat, as manatees can ingest or become entangled in marine debris, which can cause injury or death.

Human activities, such as boat strikes, can also cause significant mortality events. According to the Save the Manatee Club, boat strikes are the leading cause of manatee mortality in Florida.

In 2022, there were 89 manatee deaths caused by watercraft in Florida alone.


Subspecies

The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) is a large, aquatic mammal that is native to warm coastal areas of the Caribbean, from the eastern US to northern Brazil.

a manatee swimming underwater

There are three recognized subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris), the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), and the Caribbean manatee (Trichechus manatus).

West Indian Manatee

The West Indian manatee is the largest of the manatee species, with adults reaching lengths of up to 13 feet and weights of up to 1,300 pounds.

They are most often gray in color but can range from black to light brown.

West Indian manatees are herbivorous and feed on underwater plants. They use their whiskers to navigate and communicate with other manatees.

Florida Manatee

The Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee that is found off the coasts of the southeastern US and along the Gulf of Mexico.

They are typically larger and darker in color than the Antillean manatee. Florida manatees are known for their gentle and slow-moving nature, and they are often seen in shallow, warm waters.

Due to their slow movement, they are vulnerable to boat strikes and other human activities.

Antillean Manatee

The Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee that is found in the Caribbean and along the coast of Central America.

They are typically smaller and lighter in color than the Florida manatee. Antillean manatees are known for their curious and playful nature, and they are often seen in groups in shallow, warm waters.

Trichechus Manatus Latirostris

Trichechus Manatus Latirostris is the scientific name for the Florida manatee subspecies.

They are considered a threatened species due to habitat loss, pollution, and human activities such as boat strikes.

Efforts are being made to protect and conserve Florida manatees, including the establishment of sanctuaries and regulations on boating activities in manatee habitats.


Physiology

West Indian manatees have a unique physiology that allows them to thrive in their aquatic environment.

a manatee calf and adult swimming together

Low Metabolic Rate

One of the most notable features of West Indian manatees is their low metabolic rate. This means that they have a slower metabolism than most other mammals of their size.

This is likely an adaptation to their herbivorous diet, which is low in nutrients and requires them to conserve energy.

Lack of Insulating Body Fat

Unlike many other aquatic mammals, such as seals and whales, West Indian manatees lack a thick layer of insulating body fat.

Instead, they rely on their large size and slow metabolism to maintain their body temperature.

This means that they are more susceptible to cold temperatures and can be found in warmer waters.

Hind Limbs and Lips

West Indian manatees have two hind limbs that are used for swimming and steering.

These limbs are not very strong, which means that manatees are not very fast swimmers.

However, their large bodies and streamlined shape allow them to move through the water with ease.

Manatees also have prehensile upper lips that they use to grasp and manipulate food.

This adaptation allows them to feed on a variety of aquatic plants, including seagrasses and algae.

Pelage Cover

West Indian manatees have a sparse covering of hair on their bodies, which is known as pelage.

The pelage is not very thick, and it is not used for insulation. Instead, it is thought to provide some protection against parasites and abrasions.

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