This is an endangered antillean manatee, Trichechus manatus, at the Dallas World Aquarium.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

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  • The Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) is an herbivorous aquatic mammal that lives along the coasts of many Caribbean islands, Central America, and northeastern South America (from Colombia to Brazil). It is closely related to the Florida manatee−they are considered part of the same species but are genetically diverse and morphologically distinct enough to be considered subspecies.

    Antillean manatees inhabit rivers, lakes, lagoons, and coastal marine environments including seagrass, mangrove, and coral reef ecosystems. They are able to stay in estuarine or marine environments for extended periods of time, although they require periodic access to freshwater.

    Manatees are mostly solitary but form breeding herds or structureless groups called aggregations. They don’t have many threats from predators besides humans since killer whales and larger sharks generally aren’t found in the same coastal habitats. This means that they haven’t developed complex predator avoidance strategies. They generally move slowly, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour. Like all marine mammals, they must breathe air above the surface of the water.

    Major threats to the survival of the Antillean manatee include habitat degradation and loss, hunting, collisions with boats, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution, natural disasters, and human disturbance. Threats from hunting may be declining in some areas, but all other threats are increasing overall.

    The Antillean manatee has a low reproduction rate and breeding females will generally give birth to one calf every two years. The population of mature adult species in the wild is estimated at less than 2,500, and the Antillean manatee is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

    1. Why are manatees sometimes called sea cows?

      Manatees are large, slow-moving grazers much like cows, another mammal found on land. Both manatees and cows feed slowly on plants and are generally docile.

    2. How can boaters avoid collisions with manatees when navigating through the water?

      Save the Manatee, a Florida-based organization, publishes recommendations for boaters including: Wear polarized sunglasses while boating to eliminate the glare of the sun and see below the water’s surface; stay in deep water channels when boating; avoid boating over seagrass beds and shallow areas where manatees might be feeding; be aware that manatees also use deep water channels when traveling. In general, these recommendations are asking boaters to be more aware and observant of manatees and their usual habitat.

    3. Where does the Antillean part of the manatees’ name come from?

      The name Antillean comes from the archipelago of the Antilles, a series of islands in the Caribbean. The Antillean islands are divided into two smaller groupings: the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles. The Greater Antilles includes the islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and the Cayman Islands. The Lesser Antilles contains many smaller islands including Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Dominica, Martinique, and Grenada.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aquatic Adjective

    having to do with water.

    coral reef Noun

    rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    estuarine Adjective

    having to do with an estuary.

    genetic diversity Noun

    difference or variety of units of inheritance (genes) in a species.

    habitat degradation Noun

    decline in species-specific habitat quality that leads to reduced survival and/or reproductive success in that species.

    herbivore Noun

    organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.

    Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore
    herd Noun

    group of animals.

    lagoon Noun

    shallow body of water that may have an opening to a larger body of water, but is also protected from it by a sandbar or coral reef.

    Encyclopedic Entry: lagoon
    mammal Noun

    animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

    mangrove Noun

    type of tree or shrub with long, thick roots that grows in salty water.

    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    morphology Noun

    study of the form and structure of organisms or materials.