NAME: West Indian Manatees, species name Trichechus Manatus. Manatees are the sole survivors of the order Sirenia, a name that reflects the belief that these are the animals that inspired ancient mariner's tales of mermaids. In 1493, Columbus sighted three off the coast of America, and while believing they were mermaids, noted in his log, "They were not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man."
SIZE: The average manatee is just under 10 feet long and weighs between 800-1,200 pounds. But manatees can grow up to 13 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. Female manatees tend to be larger and weigh more.
APPEARANCE: Manatees have thick gray or brown skin with young animals appearing slightly darker. They are large slightly seal-shaped animals with flat rounded tails, small eyes and profuse, stiff whiskers on their upper lip. Their tail is used for propulsion and they have small forelimbs.
APPETITE: Manatees are vegetarians and can eat up to 100 pounds of water weeds a day to build a large blubber store, which protects them from the cold and provides an energy store during periods of scarce food.
STAMINA: Manatees are mainly nocturnal, air-breathing mammals that surface to breathe every minute or two when at rest. They can stay under water up to 20 minutes at a time. When sleeping, they lie on the bottom and surface every few minutes for a breath.
AGE: Manatees have a lifespan comparable to humans. Female manatees sexually mature between six and nine years of age and males sexually mature from five to nine years of age.
HABITAT: Sensitive to the cold, manatees live in warm, shallow muddy coastal waters and bays, sometimes moving into estuaries and coastal rivers. At one time, they could be found along coasts of Georgia, Texas, the Bahamas and Mexico. Now they are found almost exclusively along the coast of Florida during the winter months.
NUMBERS: Scientists estimate that there are at least 1,856 manatees surviving. Each October, the manatees arrive at Crystal River, retreating from falling water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. In Citrus County waters, 260 manatees were counted in January 1992, with 212 in Kings Bay.
HABITS: Generally solitary, manatees stalk no prey. Very gentle, slow-moving animals, manatees are often shy and reclusive and appear to crave quiet, protected waters. Often affectionate and playful, they have been observed to kiss and swim about with linked flippers. Some do seem to enjoy contact with humans. Most of their time is spent eating, resting and traveling.
SENSES: While their depth perception may be limited, manatees can distinguish symbols, signs, shapes and colors. They also can hear very well despite the absence of external ear lobes.
VULNERABILITIES: Humans are the main enemies of the manatees. At least one in every four manatee deaths is the result of collisions with boats, which outnumber manatees in Florida by about 600 to 1. In 1991, a record number of 62 manatees died from human-related causes. More than 90 percent of the wild manatees show scars from old boat propeller wounds on their backs and tails. Pollution also presents a danger: Manatees often are injured by discarded hooks or line that gets wrapped around flippers or by litter that is swallowed. Manatees also face danger from crushing or drowning in floodgates or entanglement in crab traps. Cold weather is the manatee's biggest natural enemy: an extended period of cold can prove fatal.
Sources: Dr. Jesse White, Save the Manatee Club and Florida Power and Light manatee publications, the Encyclopedia of Mammals, World Guide to Mammals, The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition.