6 Facts About Manatees

November is Manatee Awareness Month, and for many it might inspire a number of questions about these amazing mammals. What exactly do these gentle giants do for the environment and why are they so different from every other sea animal? 

No matter what time of year it is, manatees deserve to be celebrated. These amazing creatures fulfill a unique niche by serving as indicator species for ecosystems across the United States. Because of their reliance on the health of their habitat, manatees often act as a signal of their environment’s well-being. 

Explore some of the most important (and amusing) facts about manatees:

1. The cow-like creatures are thought to have inspired mermaid legends. During his first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus caught a glimpse of three mermaids, writing that “they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” 

Looking from underneath, the silhouettes of three manatees stand against the sun.
Manatees swimming under sun at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by David Hinkel, USFWS.

2. Manatees never leave the water but typically come up for air every 5 minutes. However, it depends on a manatee’s level of activity: when it is resting, the aquatic mammal can hold its breath for up to 20 minutes. When it is exerting great amounts of energy, a manatee may surface as often as every 30 seconds.

Seven manatees approaching the shore, two surfacing.
Manatees surfacing at Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse ONA in Florida. Photo by BLM.

3. Manatees are more closely related to the elephant than they are to other marine creatures. Each species of manatee is a member of the sirenius family, which shares a common ancestor with the elephant, aardvark and small gopher-like hyrax. 

A picture of a manatee close up, surrounded by small bright yellow fish.
Florida manatee swimming at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tracy Colson, USFWS.

4. Manatees eat more than a 10th of their weight in food every day. Manatees are herbivores, with a diet of more than 60 species of underwater, shoreline and floating plants, but primarily eat seagrass along the sea floor. Their diet is a large part of why manatees are such good indicators of an ecosystem’s health; when manatees are thriving, it means that their immediate environment is flourishing with life.

A lone manatee floats in the sea, seemingly waving to the camera.
Manatee resting at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Keith Ramos, USFWS.

5. Manatees usually mull around at about 5 miles an hour, but can motor up to 15 miles per hour in short bursts. Because they are such slow-moving animals most of the time, algae and barnacles can often be found on the backs of manatees. 

A grey manatee with orange algae on its back looks at the camera.
Antillian manatee /Manatí Antillano. Photo by Darryl Stansbury, USFWS.

6. Manatees can’t turn their heads like we do. Manatees do not possess the neck vertebra that most other mammals have, meaning that they must turn their entire bodies if they want to look around.

Four manatees swim among branches and other debris in shallow water.
Manatees swimming in the shallows at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by David Hinkel, USFWS.

To learn more about these amazing animals and how the U.S. works to protect them, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website