Welcome, November, and happy Manatee Awareness Month! Manatees, of which there are three species, are also known as sea cows. They are large, herbivorous marine mammals native to the warm waters of the Caribbean, especially Florida, as well as to the Amazon basin and the coast of West Africa. The nickname “sea cow” refers to the manatees’ habit of grazing on seagrass and other marine plants for hours on end. At the Cincinnati Zoo, Romaine lettuce and other produce is substituted for sea grass and fed in such large quantities that our manatees are the Zoo’s most expensive animals to feed. Hundreds of pounds of fresh, restaurant-quality leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, bok choy, and napa cabbage are fed to the manatees every day!
Manatees are part of the Order Sirenia, which also includes dugongs. Manatees and dugongs can be told apart by their native ranges and their tails; dugongs are only found in the Indo-West Pacific, and their tails are fluked, like those of dolphins and whales, whereas manatees have rounded, paddle-like tails. Sailors of antiquity are thought to have mistaken Sirenia for mermaids! Apart from dugongs, manatees’ closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes.
The Zoo’s current resident Florida manatees, Alby, Manhattan, and SwimShady, are unrelated males that were rescued as orphans in different parts of Florida. They were brought to the Zoo on March 24th, 2021, as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership. Once they are old enough, they will be released back into Florida waters! Alby and Manhattan are estimated to be 2 years old while SwimShady is about 1½. When they reach full maturity, they could weigh over 1,800 pounds! Females grow even larger, and the record weight is 3,550 lbs.
In 2018, manatees were removed from the IUCN Endangered Species List and labeled as Threatened. While this is good news, manatees could rejoin that list without ongoing, responsible management efforts. Manatees face multiple threats in their natural habitats, most of which are human-related. Watercraft strikes, discarded fishing line, and red tide are all examples of some of these major threats. Fortunately, this means that humans can change their actions to be more manatee-friendly! For instance, in canals and rivers where manatees swim and feed, no-wake zones help to prevent watercraft strikes, while regulations that limit industrial and agricultural runoff help to prevent red tides.
Cold stress and disease, on the other hand, are natural threats to manatees. Waters below 68 degrees Fahrenheit are too cold for manatees and can make them sick. Alby, Manhattan, and SwimShady all came to the Zoo with symptoms of cold stress, but they quickly recovered in Manatee Springs. Fortunately for wild manatees, many waterways in Florida are warmed by natural springs or power plants, allowing hundreds of manatees a safe haven to stay in during the winter months.
There is hope for the gentle giants; the Cincinnati Zoo is just one organization that is dedicated to helping protect manatees. It is one of only two zoos outside of Florida able to house and care for these animals. Through its participation in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Rescue & Rehabilitation Partnership, the Zoo has rehabilitated 20 manatees, with Alby, Manhattan, and SwimShady being the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. We want to increase awareness of these incredible creatures so that others are inspired to love, appreciate, and respect them too. Will you help spread awareness of these amazing animals? To learn more about manatees, how the Zoo is helping them, and how you can help too, visit our website or float on down to Manatee Springs in person!