The Florida manatee, considered an endangered species, is a sub-species of the West Indian manatee and is an aquatic relative of the elephant. They are large, lumbering creatures, grey-brown in appearance with small front flippers to help both steer and crawl through shallow waters as well as a powerful tail to propel them through their aquatic environment.
The manatee has a very low metabolic rate and little in-built insulation to retain body heat and these factors combine to confine the species to tropical and sub-tropical climates, with Florida being at the extreme northern reaches of its range. Manatees are found in rivers and estuaries as well as the coastal waters of Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coast and they can be found in large numbers in the Crystal River and Blue Spring areas. The greatest threat to the continued health of the species is the destruction of their warm water environment while boat strikes continue to impact on population numbers. The best current estimate of their population is around 5,000, which is much too small for comfort.
Diet and Behaviour
Like their elephant cousins, manatees are predominantly herbivores and they feed mainly on sea grasses and aquatic vegetation, with the occasional supplement of small fish and invertebrates. In this way they contribute to the health and maintenance of the rivers and estuaries they call home, providing a vital housekeeping service. Although superficially appearing to be gentle, slow-moving creatures the manatee comes into its own when in the water, displaying a surprising agility and a natural playfulness often to be seen rolling and executing somersaults.
Generally speaking female manatees are natural loners but they will congregate with other females during mating periods. They are capable of successful breeding from as young as four years old although first births usually occur around eight years of age. The pregnancy will last from 12 to 14 months with a single calf being born, and mother and calf will remain together for around 2 years.