Natural Selections: Trichechus manatus

These smart, sleepy and curious creatures are the happiest 1, 000 pounds you’ll ever see. Watch out for them on the Gulf, as they’re liable to swim right up to your Stauter, bringing joy to  you and yours – but potential harm for themselves.

CHOMP CHOMP Manatee teeth (called “marching molars”) constantly replace themselves, growing in at the back of the jaw and slowly shifting toward the front until they wear down and fall out – kind of like a dental conveyor belt.

BABY ON BOARD Even more so than its elders, prococious young manatees are especially curious, and they swim alongside their mothers, fully dependent for up to two years. A mother protects her calf by swimming between it and any obstacles, or helping it to flee if a threat worsens. As they escape, the kin pair communicate in a vocalized “duet” back and forth.

HOLY SEA COW In many Native American tribes, manatees were once a highly respected food source. Rituals were held in their honor, and it was believed that their ground-up bones treated asthma.

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GAS ATTACK Despite being so rotund, manatees don’t actually have much body fat relative to their size. Some of their girth comes from internal gas that causes bloating. Hey, you’d be gassy too if you ate up to 15 percent of your body weight in plant roughage per day!

HUBBA HUBBA Historically, legends of mermaids may have come from manatee sightings through the distorted eyes of lonely, seaweary sailors. Upon seeing three manatees, Christopher Columbus wrote with disappointment that mermaids were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

In Plain Sight

Elizabeth Hieb, manager of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Manatee Sighting Network, reports on her work with the lovable sea cows.

  • “We are the only formal network in the U.S. that records sightings from anywhere, ” Hieb says of the Sea Lab’s research. “People can call from all over and report manatee sightings. We collect and store all of those data, with a focus on the northern Gulf of Mexico.”
  • Manatees aren’t new to Mobile Bay, but their numbers here may be rising. “We know from fossil records that they were here in the past. We’ve seen a definite increase in the number of sightings since the network was founded, ” Hieb says. Now, is that increase due to a larger population or just more reported sightings? She says it’s too soon to tell.
  • Hieb thinks it’s “definitely possible” that with increased protection for manatees their populations have grown and expanded outwards in the Gulf. Despite their great recovery, the creatures are still listed as a federally endangered species, so they are far from out of the woods.
  • One way to do your part is to be mindful of curious manatees while boating. “We have a lot of people calling to report propeller scars on manatees’ backs. Basically all adults have some sort of scars like these. If you see a manatee, let the animal come to you – don’t chase it. They are attracted to boats, so they will come right up. If you do spot one, we ask that you cut the engine off and stay 100 feet away.”

Support the Dauphin Island Sea Lab’s Manatee Sighting Network by reporting any manatee sightings, adopting an Alabama manatee or purchasing fundraising merchandise. Visit or call
1-866-493-5803 for more.

text by HALEY POTTS • illustration by kelan mercer

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