The Florida manatee prefers a warm and shallow estuary or coastal waterway, where it can focus on its major activity: eating sea grass. Its herbivorous nature—unusual for a marine mammal—encourages the colloquial “sea cow” nomenclature, as does its chunky body. But really the manatee, with its heavy bones, wrinkly gray skin, and mournful expression, is much more like the elephant, to whom it is related, and not at all like the hyrax (an unappealing rodent), to whom it is also related.
The manatee family is one of only two comprising the taxonomy Sirenia. The horizontal tail placement, plus two forelimbs and prominent nipples, make the female a likely progenitor of the mermaid myth; however, the manatee face—jowly, with the bone structure of a sock puppet—compounded by a 2,000 to 3,000–pound body (declared distinctly more minivan than mermaid in shape analysis studies), challenges the notion of manatee as marine temptress. There are further problems: The aforementioned teats reside under the creature’s armpits; there is a reputation for flatulence; and there is no hint of a waist whatsoever. Still, evidence suggests that sailors of yore found the manatee to be “hot.”
The only other siren candidate extant is the dugong, Dugong dugon, sole member of the Indo-Pacific family Dugongidae. Since this manatee cousin is smaller and more streamlined, some experts propose it as the old-time seamen’s original siren fantasy. Dissenters point to the distinctive dugong cleft palate as a seduction inhibitor, but dugong promoters counter with a bio-historic “you had to be there” defense; namely, if you’ve got rickets and you’re delirious and you’ve seen nothing but whales for months, a dugong might look fetching, weird lip notwithstanding.
Proto-mermaid status remains hypothetical for the modern manatee and dugong, but both are proven more aesthetically pleasing than the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, an early toothless siren whose shape (tiny head—to ballooning body—tapering to tail) has been compared with an Indian rolling pin, the kind used to make chapati and other assorted flatbreads.
For such big fat cows, manatees are surprisingly low in body fat and unsurprisingly hard to miss, especially if you’re in a powerboat. Boats are in fact the species’s single-greatest threat, causing manatee advocate and celebrity Jimmy Buffett to blow out his flip-flops in an effort to force Florida Governor Jeb Bush to participate in manatee summits and enforce boat speed regulation.
Still, manatees get mown, and often. It is not unusual to see them sporting propeller-scars on their backs. Numbers of the wounded do rehab stints in captivity, but these refugees pose new problems, since they eat copiously and favor pricey vegetables (e.g., fancy lettuces and kale), thereby consuming their budgets for injury meds. More than a hundred heads of lettuce a day means an annual food cost of around $18,000 per manatee. So there are new inventions, like veterinarian Paul Cardeilhac’s compressed fake-lettuce pellets that, together with elephant vitamins, aim to keep manatees healthy and huge while reducing romaine expenditure.
The risk of pneumonia is also a serious problem for the manatee, whose weight and rotund shape misleads. The manatee is mostly muscle and its frumpy outer wobble involves nothing more than the jiggly skin seen covering so many other older Floridians, a skin entirely too loose to insulate. As a result, manatees get cold when the water is less than perfectly warm. Fortuitously, winter warmth is found in the heated water pumped from power plants, around which Florida manatees lurk when they’re chilly. Certain power plants even maintain special manatee-only zones at their premises; here, manatees may frolic freely in Jacuzzi temperatures until the seasons change.
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