What weighs up to 1,300 pounds, reaches up to 13 feet long and used to be commonly mistaken for a mermaid? The manatee, of course!

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.

Manatees are mammals, like whales and dolphins. Since they live in water, they have to surface regularly to breathe air.

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.

A typical manatee can eat 10 to 15 percent of its body weight in plants every day. Thus, a 1,000-pound manatee might eat 100 to 150 pounds of plants each day!

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.


15 Join the Discussion

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars  (21 votes, avg. 4.38 out of 5)
  1. HI wonderopolis!! I love manatees! They are soo cute! Once when we were in Florida, we rented a house that was on a little river off of the Atlantic Ocean, a manatee came by, so we gave it some hose water. It was adorable. I also see manatees when we go to the zoo.:D

    I think that tomorrow’s wonder is about if genies are real, or about traditional fortune teller.

    • We think manatees are cute, too, Meredith! What a special treat for you to get to see one so close up in it’s natural habitat! :-)

    • That’s a great observation you had about sea cows being as big as real cows, #1 sea cow fan! Manatees are herbivores (meaning they only eat plants). Cows are herbivores, too, and we think that’s how manatees got the nickname “sea cows.” Thank you so much for sharing that you watched a show about manatees! They are definitely gentle giants! :-)

  2. I loved this wonder. There were so many fun facts in it, it was hard to pick my favorite one. Here is my favorite fact: 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!!!! I love this wonder because I got to swim with a sea cow before!!!!!!!!

    • We’re super happy for you, Megan! What a special once-in-a-lifetime treat you got to experience by swimming with a manatee! It must have been WONDERful! :-)

  3. I think that we (Humans) should be more careful beacause manatees are almost extinct and we’ve been greedy and taking more of their home, so I like to save the manatees!

    Manatees forever :0)
    PS manatees are so cute!!!

    • We’re proud of you for feeling the way you do about saving the manatees and asking people to be more careful about not destroying their habitats, Manatees Forever! Thanks so much for sharing your comment with us today! :-)

  4. I have been to Crystal River, Fl. on 6 different trips just to go swim with the manatees. They are so friendly! It’s like having your dog in the water. Please go to “Adopt a Manatee” and see what you can do to help protect these precious, endanged animals.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Do sea cows moo?
  • Why are manatees called “sea cows”?
  • How much food do manatees eat every day?

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Learn about manatees’ behavioral characteristics and how manatees in captivity interact with people in National Geographic Xpeditions’ What Are Manatees? lesson.


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