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Manatees: Life Cycle & Reproduction

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you will learn about the life cycle and reproduction of manatees. There are three species of manatees, but the life cycle is similar across all three species.

Types of Manatees

Imagine if you spent your days floating around in the water, eating sea grass. That's how manatees spend most of their lives. They are slow-moving, calm creatures, sometimes called 'sea cows' because of their demeanor and eating sea grass.

There are three different species of manatees, all of which are in the Trichechus genus. Sharing a genus means they are very closely related. The West Indian manatee lives around Florida, both on the Atlantic Ocean side and the Gulf of Mexico side, and down along the coast of South America. The West African manatee is found off the western coast of Africa, and the Amazonian manatee lives in the Amazon river basin. These species have some differences, but their life cycles and reproduction are very similar.

Life Cycle

Manatees have four stages in their life cycle: fetus (unborn baby), young manatee, adult, and breeding adult. There is a period of time after they have left their mothers that they are independent, but not yet able to have babies of their own.

After a manatee is born, it stays with its mother until it is weaned, which means it starts eating sea grass instead of nursing. After that point the baby becomes independent and goes off on its own, and the mother is able to breed again. Typically, manatees only give birth to one baby about every two years.

Manatees can have very long lives. In captivity they have lived more than sixty years! In the wild their average lifespan is shorter, closer to forty years. However, many do not live this long because they die of unnatural causes. Manatees are sometimes hit by boats, caught in fishermen's nets, or ingest foreign objects. They have also historically been hunted for their bones and skin, which is illegal in the US. Adult manatees have few, if any, natural predators. Humans are the main cause of shortening the manatee lifespan.

Manatee mother and calf
Manatee and Baby

Reproduction

Manatees reproduce sexually, meaning they conceive a baby when an egg and a sperm combine. Females are able to breed after they are two years old, but sometimes do not until they are five or even nine years old. The West Indian manatee is usually at least five before they can breed. When the West Indian manatee is able to breed, the males start following her around, sometimes in groups as big as twenty.

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