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October 8, 2009

Manatees are delicious. In nature, if you taste delicious, you better be quick. Manatees are slow. And if you’re slow and delicious you better have a high reproductive rate. Manatees don’t and the consequence of this Darwinian nightmare is a perpetual spot on the Endangered Species list.

West Indian Manatee

During colonial times in the New World, missionaries believed Manatees were fish and recommended them as an alternative for the Friday meal. The tasty aquatic mammal was enjoyed so fervently that dozens of ships brought hundreds of animals to Europe annually for the meat. In Florida, the indigenous Calusas thrived on the bounty of the sea for thousands of years with Manatee meat reserved for tribal leaders.

West Indian Manatee

The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) inhabits the shallow waters along the southeastern coast of the US. With few predators other than humans, these floating baked potatoes lazily swim about in search of sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation. Also known as Sea Cows, they eat 10-15% of their body weight a day. Many aquatic plants have adapted anti-herbivore tactics including rough, silica-laced leaves. Manatees have countered with grinding molars that shed as new teeth are developed.

Although they look like they need an aquatic treadmill, much of the girth of an average 1200 lb animal can be attributed to a lengthy intestine. To help digest the massive amount of food eaten each day, Manatees have the luxury of an intestine that measures half the length of a football field. Yes, 150 feet.

Manatees reach sexual maturity around age five. Receptive females attract an entourage of many males who joust and jostle one another like round bumper cars, determined for an opportunity to mate. The gestation period for the West Indian Manatee is a little more than 12 months. The calf remains with the mother for up to 2 years, learning food preferences and migration routes.

I spotted a mother and calf enjoying fresh water from the Everglades flowing into the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. If they really are delicious I’ll never know. Protected by the Endangered Species Act, the West Indian Manatee now numbers over 3000 in the state of Florida.

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