Graceful grazers

Often called sea cows because of their large, rotund bodies and daily grazing habits, West Indian manatees are mammals that are primarily found in the coastal areas of Florida, though they range throughout the southern United States to the northeast coast of Brazil and around islands near these shores. Recently, a female and her calf were found in The Bahamas. Possessing a torpedo-shaped body, manatees are adapted for their aquatic lifestyle with their massive, heavy bones that allow them to easily submerge to eat, limbs modified into paddle-shaped flippers for maneuvering through the water; a prehensile lip to grab vegetation; and a 130-foot-long intestine which helps absorb nutrients from 100 to 150 pounds of the low-nutrient plants they eat each day. Plants are tough on teeth and manatee teeth are replaced throughout their lifetime. It’s hard to believe it takes seven days for them to digest their food!

Since manatees are mammals, they must breathe air, yet they never leave the water. A manatee at rest can remain submerged for 15 minutes, but it must breathe every 3 to 4 minutes while swimming. Manatees are usually seen alone, in pairs, or in small groups of half dozen or fewer animals.