Everything You Need to Know About These Gentle Giants
A manatee might look like a cross between a baby whale and seal, but in reality, it’s not even a close relative to either of these animals. You might not even believe what land mammal it is a closer relation to, but we will get to that later.
These fascinating marine mammals are not the biggest mammals in the sea, but they are still pretty massive, and have really big babies. They are one of the most charming and playful water dwellers that you might every be lucky to come across.
Despite their charismatic nature, many of these animals are unfortunately endangered. It’s closest cousin, the stellers sea cow is already extinct, having been declared as such only mere decades after it’s discovery.
Here are some amazing baby manatee facts that you might not know, and some answers to a few frequently asked questions!
Baby Manatee Facts
A Baby Manatee Is Called A Calf
Baby manatees, both male and female, are called ‘calves‘. As they grow, male manatees are called ‘bulls‘, and females are known as ‘cows‘. They are born in open water, and generally live in small family groups called a ‘herd‘ while mothers are rearing their young. A manatee is also sometimes referred to as a ‘sea cow‘.
While they are often solitary animals when not raising offspring, they do occasionally live in pairs or get together in small groups of usually no more than about six individuals. The collective noun for a group of unrelated manatee is an ‘aggregation‘.
These small groups usually live in close proximity to each other to share a rich feeding ground or a warm spot. They are transient rather than permanent groups.
Babies Are Born And Nurse Underwater
Manatee calves, like most marine mammals, are born underwater. Like baby whales however, they can not breathe underwater, and must surface to do so. They can’t swim for about the first hour after birth, so to take their first breath their mother gives them a hand to the surface.
While whales can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes under water, manatees can hold theirs only for about 20 minutes. They tend to breathe more often than this though, normally surfacing about every 5 minutes or so to take a breath.
The baby manatee will live very close to their parent cow for up to 2 years following their birth. They may nurse for this entire time, relying to some degree on their mothers milk. They do however supplement their diet with herbaceous plant foods after the first few weeks.
The parent bull is not involved in the rearing of the calf.
A Baby Manatee’s Closest Land Relative Is The Elephant
Baby manatees are of an order of animal called Sirenia, in which two extant and two extinct families exist. The extant families are Trichechidae to which all three living species of manatees belong, and the family Dugongidae in which the only living species of dugong belongs.
As members of the same order, the dugong is the closest living relative to the manatee, and they are similar in many physical respects and behavioural traits.
However, the closest living land relative to both the dugong and the manatee, is actually the elephant! The order Sirenia are more closely related to elephants than they are to any other existing marine mammal.
If you go back 50 million years or so, the ancient relatives of manatees were grass feeding land mammals called Tethytheria. These were a a common ancestor between the manatee and the elephant. While life originally evolved to move out of the sea, manatees evolved to go back in!
Manatee Babies Are Born After A Year
Baby manatees are born around 12 to 13 months after conception, and the birthing cycle for mothers can range between two to five years. The bull manatee does not hand around after mating season, and the calves are raised entirely by their mother cow. The calf will nurse from its mother for the first two years of live, and females mature quicker than males.
While manatee babies may only need to feed from their mothers for the first year of their lives, they learn valuable information about feeding, and areas to travel for rest, safety and breeding from their mothers. By the age of two they are generally ready to leave their parental group.
A female calf will reach sexual maturity between three to five years of age, whereas males can take between five to seven years to be able to father offspring.
Manatee Babies Are Polyphyodonts
Baby manatees are one of only three species of mammal to go through many sets of teeth across the span of their whole lives. They are known as Polyphyodonts, which means that their teeth are constantly being replaced.
Most species of mammal, including humans, are diphyodonts, meaning we have two sets of teeth in our life, baby teeth and then a set of permanent teeth.
The only other two mammal Polyphyodonts are elephants and kangaroos. It is far more common in reptiles such as crocodiles, alligators and geckos, as well as most fish species that have teeth.
Manatee Babies Are Rarely Born As Twins
Similarly to baby whales, manatee calves are usually born as single offspring. At this size, one is enough surely! A baby West Indian manatee can weigh upwards of 60-70 lbs (27-32 kg) and measure around 1.2 to 1.4 m in length. Amazonian manatee calves on the other hand are a bit smaller, at around 80 cm in length, but that is still pretty big!
The percentage of manatees born as twins is estimated to be between 1.4 to 4 % for Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) specifically. This is more than the percentage rate of whale twins by comparison.
There is little data to determine how successful manatee twins are in the wild, because occurrences are so rare.
Manatee Babies Can Be Born Head Or Tail First
We know that whales can give birth to calves hear or tail first, but tail first has fewer risks particularly around drowning. With Manatees, there seems to be similar risk with birthing head first. It is possible for a head first birth to take place with no complications at all. But it can be more difficult for the birthing parent to have a head first birth and the risks are higher.
In most cases, manatees do give birth to calves tail first. Manatee calves will continue to have foetal folds in their skin for several weeks after they are born. If they still have these folds, you know they are very young.
Baby Manatee FAQs
How Many Babies Do Manatees Have?
Manatees tend to have one baby at a time. Single births make up the vast majority of deliveries, with occurrences of twins very rare. A mature manatee cow may have a single offspring every two to five years, but reproductive rates are low.
What Do Baby Manatee Eat?
Manatee babies will drink their mothers milk for up to the first year of their life. However, after the first few weeks they will start to introduce algae and plants into their diet. They are herbivores by nature, and only in very rare occasions have they ever eaten meat.
How Long Do Manatees Live?
Baby manatees have been known to grow up to live very long lives. There are examples of Florida manatees reaching 60 years old, even up to 69. There are also examples of West Indian manatees reaching 50 years of age in the wild. It is more common for them to reach this kind of age in captivity though.
Are There Natural Predators Of Baby Manatee?
Baby manatees have been known to fall victim to alligators and some sharks, particularly those that frequent shallower coastal waters, estuaries or slow moving rivers where they live. In the Amazon, opportunistic jaguars have even been reported to prey on baby manatees.
Adults don’t generally have to worry about predators. Their massive size makes them a hard target in the waters that they occupy.
Are Manatees Protected?
Manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and in the USA, they are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.
Why Does Algae Grow On Manatees?
Manatees like to hang out in warm, shallow water where algae also likes to thrive. As they surface in these waters where algae blooms on the surface, some of it leaves a coating on the manatees skin.