I firmly believe that if we replaced all hippos with manatees, the world would be a better place (I’m joking; hippopotamus dung is great for the environment but their attitude is not). Manatees are the most peaceful, serene animals in existence and it’s beautiful how simple they are. They’re such pacifists that they don’t even have any natural predators (aside from desperate crocodiles eating young calves), and their natural curiosity makes them friendly to other species!
Evolutionarily, manatees are most closely related to elephants and surprisingly, hyraxes, which are a species of tiny furred mammals.
A manatee’s diet consists of seagrass and other aquatic vegetation, which has informed how they’ve adapted over time. Because of their lack of natural threats and their highly specific diet, they only have about 6 teeth in each jaw. They lack incisors and canines, instead having 12 molar-like teeth towards the backs of their mouths. Their thick upper lip is prehensile, allowing them to grasp at grass, but preventing them from biting another creature. Their lack of sharp teeth, claws, or hooves means that they couldn’t hurt anyone if they tried.
Manatees are typically solitary, spending half of their time in the water. They swim in the shallows at about 8km an hour, eating 10% of their body weight in aquatic plants. Using their front flippers to “walk” along the river floor, they push their food into their mouth. This food occasionally includes fish, but typically only when the manatee is lacking nutrients.
As I mentioned before, manatees are extremely docile and peaceful creatures. They are also highly curious and have often come close to humans and human-built structures. Manatees share their homes with alligators, and with their inability to fight back, you might think they’d be easy prey. But alligators will more often leave them alone than attack. There are a few reasons for this: a manatee’s hide is too thick to bite through, and the alligator’s usual hunting method – drowning their prey – doesn’t work on an animal that can hold its breath for 20 minutes. So the manatee is free to go along its merry way.
While they don’t have any natural predators, humans have accounted for a large number of manatee deaths. Manatees, with their curious nature, aren’t aware of man-made danger and will get too close to speedboats and aquatic vehicles. They are frequently injured and killed by propellers, as well as collisions with ships. Manatees are susceptible to any change in their habitat, diet, or health, making their stability as a species very shaky. There are many manatee conservation efforts, like the Save the Manatee Club, which raises money to protect these threatened species.
As I covered in an earlier post, sailors like Christopher Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids. Manatees are also important in West African folklore: they were believed to have once been human, and it is taboo to kill them.
I also just drew this cute little manatee for my RedBubble shop, which you can buy on a shirt, a mug, a sticker, or more!