Where Do Manatees Live? - Habitat & Facts

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be learning about the three different habitats that host manatees, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the Amazon River, and the west coast and rivers of Africa.

What Are Manatees?

Picture a herd of cows, slowly grazing throughout a field. As they meander through the grass, they nibble along, munching the day away. Today's lesson won't be about dairy cows, but rather so called 'sea cows', or manatees. Named for their grazing habits, the manatee are also about the same size as a dairy cow, weighing about 1,300 pounds and growing up to 13 feet in length.

Manatees are large aquatic mammals

Manatees may be huge, but they are so graceful that in the past sailors used to think they were mermaids! With a round body, flippers in place of hooves, and a strong tail they easily swim through the water at speeds up to 15 miles per hour. That's faster than most people can run!

Manatees are aquatic mammals, meaning they give birth to live young and breathe air like us. Manatees can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, but with the energetic demands of swimming, especially so quickly, they must come up for air every three or four minutes. Manatees live in three main places, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, the Amazon River, and the west coast of Africa. Today, we're going to look at the details of each of these habitats.

Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Caribbean

The warm, tropical waters off of the coast of Florida are a popular area for beach goers. The warm, calm waters aren't just for humans however. The West Indian manatee also enjoys the marine, brackish and freshwater systems around the Florida coastline. In the summer, when ocean waters are warmer, they can even travel as far north up the Atlantic Coast as Rhode Island.

However, manatees aren't a fan of the cold, Atlantic winter. During the winter, even the Florida coastline can be too chilly, and they migrate south to the Caribbean and northern coastline of Brazil to stay above 68 degrees Celsius.

Humans have been changing the landscape of the Florida coast by outputting warm water from power plants. The increased water temperature is allowing the West Indian manatee to stay further north during the winter than what was previously possible.

The West Indian manatees spend their days grazing on sea grass, much like the cows we see on land. Instead of terrestrial grasses, this sea cow prefers to dine on the native cordgrass, turtle grass and eelgrass. Luckily, it will also eat water hyacinth, an invasive species from South America that has been growing rapidly in the waterways of Florida. Manatees are certainly helping to control the problem, as they eat on average about 32 pounds of plant material per day, spending up to eight hours grazing.

A West Indian manatee sharing the shallow water with neighboring fish
West Indian manatee

The West Indian manatee prefers shallow water, not deep oceans like other large marine mammals. They can be found in waterways connected to coastline that are over three feet deep, and easily switch between saltwater and freshwater habitats.

The Amazon River

If we continue traveling south from the West Indian manatee's range inland into South America, another manatee species will appear on the radar, the Amazon manatee. Unlike the West Indian manatee that lives along the saltwater coast, the Amazon manatee lives exclusively in freshwater. Although the West Indian manatee can tolerate temperatures as low as 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the Amazon manatee likes it a bit warmer, between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Amazon manatee lives only in the Amazon River
Amazon River

Swimming in the murky water of the Amazon river and its waterways, it can be hard to get a glimpse of this manatee. During the wet season when food is plentiful and the forest floor is flooded, they can be found along smaller tributaries. They graze here on the plentiful water hyacinth (which is native to this area) and water lettuce. The arrival of the dry season draws the manatees back into larger lakes or deeper parts of the river, where they use the fat stored from the plentiful harvest of the wet season to survive.

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