Manatees are large, gray aquatic mammals. Their big, round bodies taper to a flat, paddle-like tail. Legend has it that sailors mistook manatees for mermaids because of their long tails.
Manatees have two forelimbs called "flippers." Their faces and heads are often wrinkled, and they have whiskers on their noses.
Some people believe they resemble walruses. Scientists who have studied manatees, however, believe that their closest animal relative is the elephant.
Manatees are gentle animals with no natural enemies. They spend most of their time eating, resting and swimming slowly but gracefully. They can swim steadily at about 5 miles per hour, with short bursts of speed of up to 15 miles per hour possible.
Unfortunately, manatees are often hurt by boats. Because manatees tend to live in shallow waters and move slowly, they cannot always get out of the way of fast-moving boats. As a result, manatees often have scars from propeller blades.
When they're swimming, manatees breathe every three to four minutes. When resting, they may stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes.
Being mammals also means that manatees are warm-blooded. Since their bodies don't have as much blubber as larger marine mammals do, manatees have a harder time keeping their bodies warm enough.
As a result, manatees usually stay in warmer waters (above 70° F). Manatees that live in Florida's rivers, though, must find ways to stay warm during the winter months. In these colder months, manatees often live near natural warm springs in Florida's coastal rivers or even near areas where electric power plants discharge warm water.
Manatees are the only marine mammals that are herbivores. That means they only eat plants.
This explains why manatees seek out living areas that have plenty of water plants. If you're wondering how manatees get to be so big eating only plants, just wait until you learn how much they eat.
To keep up with a manatee, an 80-pound child would have to eat at least 8 pounds of salad each day. That's a lot of salad!
Since they only eat plants, like cows do, that's how they got the nickname “sea cows." But do they “moo" like cows? Not exactly…
Manatees communicate with each other by making sounds — squeaks, squeals and screams — that humans are able to hear. Sometimes their voices sound like clicks or chirps. Researchers believe manatees can recognize each other by their sounds.
Because manatees have been hunted in the past for their meat, hides and bones, the number of wild manatees around the world has greatly decreased. In many areas, they are considered to be an endangered species.
Some people estimate there are only about 2,500 manatees left in the United States. Areas with lots of manatees, like Florida, have passed laws that protect their habitats.