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What Do Manatees Eat?

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Manatees are marine mammals, often referred to as sea cows. There are three different species of this animal, the Amazonian manatee, the African and the West Indian. All three species are mainly herbivorous and live on a wide variety of aquatic plants. In the course of feeding, though, they take in various invertebrates and small fish, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the West Indian manatee chooses animals on occasion.

Various species of manatees and their sizesVarious species of manatees and their sizes. The biggest is the Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) but unfortunately, it was hunted to extinction. The smallest is the Amazonian manatee.

How much do they eat?

Manatees need to eat around 9% of their body weight daily. To conserve energy they feed more on surface plants, as diving to deeper, colder waters uses a lot of energy, especially as they don’t have much body fat.

The West Indian manatee

This is the largest species of the three. They are found in the warmer fresh and saltwater bodies in the United States, and are also found in Latin America.

West Indian diet

In the wild, they feed on submerged freshwater plants like eelgrass, wigeon grass, hydrilla, paragrass and shoal weed. This manatee has been seen to eat insects and their larvae, as well as shrimp and mollusks while eating its favorite plants.

They eat animals too

Naturalists Sarah Corby and Graham Worthy claimed, in a 2003 journal article, that West Indian manatees deliberately pick out animals to eat.

The Amazonian manatee

This species lives in the freshwater rivers, lakes and lagoons of the Amazon River Basin. It’s different from its cousins in that it does most of its feeding during the rainy months (from April to August) when its vegetation is most abundant. During this season, the manatee will eat for up to eight hours a day. Research suggests that this four-month feast allows the manatee to build up its fat reserves, unusually high for a manatee, that see it through the rest of the year. The deforestation of the Amazon is a great threat to this mammal.

The African manatee

It is found in the freshwater bodies along the West African coast, as far upstream as Mali’s River Niger. Aquatic and submerged plants aren’t too common in West Africa, so African manatees eat bank and overhanging plants. The deforestation of mangroves has put this manatee in great peril. In Sierra Leone, they are often killed by farmers who find them destroying their rice fields.

Manatee Calves

Manatee babies, referred to as calves, start to feed on their mother’s milk when just a few hours old. Manatee milk is mainly water, with around 13% fat lipid content and 7% protein, as well as all the trace nutrients the calf needs. The young manatees carry on suckling for around a year, but most calves start to eat increasing amounts of plants between one and two weeks old.

More: Facts about manatees.