Looking for manatees in the mangroves of the Florida Keys? You’re not alone! “Where can I see a manatee?” is definitely one of the most common questions we get at PADDLE! the Florida Keys, and we’re always out looking for them ourselves. But how much do you know about this elusive sea mammal? Here are 10 fun tidbits to bring up on your next paddle excursion.
1. The word “manatee” has roots in the Carib word manati, meaning “breast” or “udder,” as manatees have mammary glands under their flippers. It’s also close to the Latin word for “having hands,” manatus, which may refer to the manatees’ fingernailed flippers that resemble hands.
2. Fingernails? Yes! The manatees’ two forelimbs, called flippers, each have three to four nails. They use their flippers to steer and crawl along the bottom.
3. Manatees have a flexible, prenhensile upper lip — its two halves can move independently to grab and rip grasses from the bottom. Instead of front teeth, they have a hard, ridged pad behind their lips that helps tear up their food.
4. They are one of only three mammal species (along with kangaroos and elephants) whose teeth are continuously replaced as they get worn down, with new teeth growing in the rear of the mouth and moving forward as the front teeth fall out.
5. A manatee’s lungs are 2/3 the length of its body, allowing it to stay underwater for three to five minutes or, when resting, up to twenty minutes.
6. Manatees may spend up to seven hours a day grazing for food. They eat 10-15% of their body weight a day in vegetation, along with some small fish and invertebrates that get caught up in the mix.
7. Manatees communicate in squeaks and chirps.
8. Manatees reproduce slowly, because they breed once every two years, and generally only a single calf is born. The baby gestates for twelve months and can nurse for up to two years. It won’t begin to mate until age five.
9. Manatees migrate. During the winter, they concentrate in warm spring rivers in Florida and around power plants that produce warm water runoff. During the summer, they can move up to the coasts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and have even been found as far west as Texas and up to Massachusetts.
10. After more than 40 years on the endangered species list, the manatee is now being considered for a move up from “endangered” to “threatened” status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The change wouldn’t roll back any protections now in place, but it would recognize that the population has grown over the years, with at least 6,200 manatees recently counted in Florida.
The canals and creeks around PADDLE! the Florida Keys are regular manatee hangouts, so keep an eye out, and you may get to have an incredible encounter (from a respectful distance, of course).