Manatees are gentle giants. By giant I mean the males can reach 3,500 pounds and up to 13 feet long (though the average adult is about 10 feet long and weighs around 1,000 lbs)! And yet they are gentle, lumbering creatures. Also known as sea cows, manatees are not predators, eating only plants. To feed such a body, manatees spend about 8 hours a day grazing and must consume 10-15% of their body weight every day. That’s like eating 3 bathtubs full of spinach.

Manatee swims near Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit Department of the Interior. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To do all of this grazing, manatees have a unique adaptation. They have prehensile lips, and the upper lip is split in two with each side moving independently. This allows the manatee to use their lips like fingers to gather vegetation and move it into their mouths! Inside their mouths they do have teeth (all molars), sometimes referred to as marching molars. When front teeth wear down they are replaced; new molars grow in the back and the entire set of teeth progresses forward over time. This process continues throughout the manatee’s lifetime.

These marine mammals live in both freshwater and saltwater, preferring calmer areas like canals, rivers, bays, and estuaries. In the winter, they migrate to warmer waters, often in canals near springs or near power plant water discharge locations. And while they are seen congregating in large groups during the winter, in warmer months manatees travel mostly alone. However, if they do run across another manatee, they will spend time socializing. In addition, calves will stay with their mother for up to two years.

Another fun manatee fact…their closest relatives are the elephant and the hyrax.