The Florida Manatee
Call them “sea cows” or even “mermaids” (as some early explorers mistook them to be), Florida manatees are beloved presences here. The docile, slow-moving herbivores can usually be spotted in shallow waters munching on seagrass and other underwater plants. And yes, they breathe air. In fact, the massive aquatic mammals, which can grow to nearly 12 feet long and more than 1,200 pounds, are most closely related to elephants. Long classified as “endangered” because of habitat loss and their vulnerability to speedboats, manatee populations have recently stabilized and may soon be upgraded to “threatened” status. —Hannah Wallace
Bullied by Boats
Though manatees have exceptional hearing, they’re not particularly nimble, so it can be hard for them to avoid speeding boats. No-wake zones along the Intracoastal and other manatee habitats are designed to give the creatures a chance to get out of the way—or to lessen the damage if they can’t.
In addition to boats, manatees can be harmed by red tide and winter cold snaps, which can put them into shock or kill them if they can’t find warmer waters.
A Certain Age
Manatees live to at least about 30 years in the wild, and possibly closer to 50. (The South Florida Museum’s famous Snooty, who was born in captivity, is over 60.) Pregnant females carry a single calf for about a year; twins are possible, but rare.
If you X-ray a manatee’s two fore-paddles—its arms, essentially—you can see they actually resemble hands with five distinct fingers. And if you look closely at the skin of the paddles, you’ll see they even have fingernails, too.
On the Move
Scientists long believed manatees stuck to shoreline areas; then they came across individuals in Cuba that had previously been photographed in Florida. Now they know that some travel as far as Belize and the Bahamas, a feat that requires sophisticated navigational ability.
Manatees are native to Florida; they’ve been here a lot longer than we have, in fact. Florida manatees are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. (There’s also a West African species.)