Types of Manatees: Amazonian & African

Instructor: Lauren Posey

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

There are three species of manatees in the world. In this lesson, you will look more closely at two of these species: the Amazonian manatee and the West African manatee.

Gentle Giants

Imagine you are floating on a boat down the river and a large gray blob bumps into you. If you are boating in a manatee habitat, this could happen! Manatees are gentle and curious creatures. They move slowly, and do occasionally bump into boats or kayaks. There are three species of manatee, and they all look very similar. They are gray and oval-shaped, with two flippers and a rounded tail. The species are the West Indian manatee (which is the species common in Florida and the Gulf Coast of North America), the Amazonian manatee, and the West African manatee. We're going to take a closer look at the latter two species.

All three manatee species look very similar

Manatees of the Amazon

The scientific name for the Amazonian manatee is Trichechus inunguis. They are the smallest of the manatee species, but they are still pretty large. On average, they are eight to ten feet long and can weigh half a ton. These manatees are listed as vulnerable on the endangered species list, which means they face the risk of becoming endangered or extinct, and so it is illegal to hunt them.

Amazonian manatees are herbivores, meaning they only eat plants. They eat a wide variety of plant types and spend pretty much all of their time eating, especially in the rainy season when food is more plentiful. During these times, they build up their blubber, or fat layer. Then when the dry season comes around and there is less food, they can live off the stored fat.

Habitat and Movement

The Amazonian manatee, as you might guess from its name, lives throughout the Amazon river basin. This is located in the northern-central portion of South America.

This species is the only manatee that lives exclusively in freshwater and never goes into saltwater environments. The Amazon river is, after all, a freshwater river, and the manatees never leave the river basin.

During the rainy season, large portions of the forest around the river will flood. The manatees move into the flooded areas and spend the season eating the newly submerged vegetation. Then when the dry season comes around and the areas dry up again, they move back into the main portions of the river. Some of them also spend the dry season in deeper lakes that are reconnected to the river system when it rains again.

A map of the Amazon river basin
Amazon river basin

West African Manatee

The West African manatee, Trichechus senegalensis, has not been studied as well as the other two manatee species. It is slightly bigger than the Amazonian manatee, averaging ten to thirteen feet long. However, it weighs about the same, and so it looks a little sleeker and less rounded. Otherwise, they are very similar in appearance.

The West African manatee is also classified as vulnerable. They eat mostly plants, but unlike the Amazonian manatee, they are also known to eat small fish and shellfish as well. Usually this is when the fish are caught in fishermen's nets, as opposed to the manatee actively hunting and catching fish.

The West African manatee is longer and sleeker than the Amazonian manatee
West African manatee

Habitat and Movement

The West African manatee can live in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish water, which is a mixture of the two. It is found all along the western coast of Africa, from Angola down at the southernmost portion of its range, up to Mauritania in the northern portion.

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