In 1493, when Columbus sailed to the Americas for his second journey, he and his sailors were the first Europeans to spot the present-day manatees. Because of their amazingly humanlike appearance these ancient sailors went home telling stories of mermaids. When the Spanish came over they hunted and ate these massive beasts. Since the early 1900’s the manatee population has dwindled severely. Finally countries and smaller organizations began taking interest in saving the manatees. Laws and regulations were set so that manatees might be saved from extinction.
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This has been successful to a point, but still only very few manatees live and they must be nurtured in order to flourish. Manatees are also known as sea cows because they graze on pastures of sea grass. They are air breathing creatures and most kinds can grow up to thirteen feet long during the average life span of sixty years. Manatees can weigh up to 3500 pounds. An average adult weighs between 1000 and 2000 pounds. They range from gray to brown in color and are primarily a plant-eating mammal. Sometimes they may eat small crabs, snails, or any other small animal that clings to the water grass.
Manatees usually keep to themselves but when migration season arrives, they migrate in groups to warmer waters full of rich vegetation. During mating season they will also travel in groups. Mating season is not held at any particular time of the year. However when the females are ready to breed (about seven years old) they will rub certain parts of their bodies up against rocks or other things in the water where a matured male (three to four years old) will follow her. The female will then wait for her suitor or suitors to arrive. If there are more than one she will run from the group until she is ready to mate.
There are four different types of manatees. The most common type of manatee is the West Indian Manatee. They swim freely in fresh or salt water and use their tail to propel themselves and their flippers to steer. At the end of each flipper are three or four nails. Another type of manatee, the West African Manatee, has a similar appearance. There is not much known about this species of manatees but their population seems to be declining. The Amazonian Manatee is found in the Amazon River and swims only in fresh water. It is different from the other manatees because it has smooth skin and no nails at the end of its flippers.
A dugong is another type of manatee. It is found in the coastal waters of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. It swims only in salt water and has smooth skin and no nails like the Amazonian Manatee. One thing different about this type of manatee is that it has a notched tail like a dolphin. Manatees have always amazed since I first saw one in its natural habitat in Florida. Their humanlike features, gentle ways, and carefree attitude have always fascinated me. I think it is that very combination of great size and gentle spirit, which makes the manatee truly unique.