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Crystal River, Florida, is home to some special aquatic mammals called manatees, but at first many people tend to ask, are manatees dangerous? From afar, you could think these animals are seals. But on close contact, you will see that they are much larger. Adult manatees are typically 9 to 10 feet in length, weighing about a thousand pounds, averagely. But then, a few of them can weigh well up to 3,500 pounds with a length of 13 feet. For the sake of context, 3,500 pounds is about the size of three grand pianos, and 13 feet is about the height of a giraffe.
Being aquatic animals, manatees depend on their forelimb flippers for steering and holding vegetation to eat. They also use their large, round, flattened paddle-shaped tail for swimming. Like elephants, these large mammals have finely wrinkled, leathery skin that constantly flakes off. As a result, manatees usually have algae growing on their backs and tails. So, when you look at them from a distance, it might appear that they have green or brown skin.
With such an appearance, it’s likely that you think these animals are dangerous at first sight. This has led many to ask the question, are manatees friendly? Well, in this article, I’ll try to answer that question to the best of my understanding as I show you some of the things I’ve discovered on my own.
No, manatees are not dangerous. Manatees are peaceful and calm marine animals that do not harm anyone. They are, in fact, curious animals who enjoy human interaction, and they enjoy interacting and staying around humans. As a result, manatees frequently approach swimmers or divers for a belly rub or close contact. To date, there has never been a record of manatees attacking any humans or even other animals.
The daily itinerary for manatees is very simple; they spend several hours swimming and grazing on seagrasses and water vegetation every day. When they are finished with their food, the large mammals retire to their private quarters called sanctuaries, where they sleep and rest. So, if you’re going on a manatee tour, there’s no reason to be afraid of swimming in manatee-infested waters.
Yes, manatees have teeth, and by the way, they have an interesting set of teeth in their mouth. Considering they are mammals, it is totally normal that they have teeth as most mammals have teeth. However, unlike humans, where we have different types of teeth, manatees only have molars. In humans, molars are the last set of teeth in our mouth, and this type of teeth is best for chewing and grinding food. Since they are mainly herbivorous mammals, they feed on a wide range of vegetation, including floating, emergent, submerged, and shoreline vegetation.
Crystal River Manatees, amongst others, eat a lot of food consisting of over 60 plant species, including mangrove leaves, turtle grass, shoal grass, manatee grass, acorns, hydrilla, water hyacinth, and various algae. Every day, these animals eat up to 4-9 percent of their body weight in wet vegetation, which means they spend several hours grazing. The animals manipulate vegetation with their large, flexible lips and front flippers, crush vegetation into smaller pieces with their horny ridged pads and lower jaw and grind food with their molars. Their teeth erode as they chew on the food because sand usually gets caught up with the plants they eat. To adapt, their jaws continue to grow new molars from the back as the older ones fall out in front.
So, to answer the question once again, yes, manatees have a mouthful of teeth. So are manatees dangerous? Can they bite?
No, manatees do not bite even with so many teeth in their mouth. As of the time of writing this, there is no record of any manatee biting anyone, and there are many reasons for that. The first reason comes from the physical structure of these animals. Manatees, unlike other animals, do not have canines or incisors, the type of teeth used for biting. Instead, all they have in their mouth are molars for chewing and grinding their food.
Secondly, manatees have snouts that look like the smaller version of an elephant’s trunk. This trunk anatomically falls in a place that makes it almost impossible for these animals to bite. Like elephants, manatees use their snouts as an extra appendage for grabbing food. If they have to bite you, they have to bite through the snout, which is totally impossible. Besides, manatees do not have any known natural predators. If they meet a crocodile in the water, the crocodile will allow the manatee to go on its way. As a result, manatees do not bite and have body weapons to attack perceived enemies. Perhaps the lack of natural predators renders such weaponry unnecessary.
The final reason why I am confident a manatee won’t bite you is that they are herbivores. That is, manatees only eat plant material. Therefore, they won’t be tempted to take a bite from your skin even if you come too close to them. If someone asks you the question “are manatees dangerous“, you can share this important detail.
No, manatees are not known to be aggressive. From my research, I found that these big creatures mostly sit around all day, either eating, sleeping, or just moving around. If you called them lazy, you might be correct. Manatees are so docile and peaceful that they do not take revenge or attack even when they are threatened. All the animal does is change its course from the perceived danger. Therefore, if, for instance, you move to find yourself beside a giant manatee and out of panic you hit the animal, be sure that the animal will find its way away from you instead of retaliating.
It is understandable why many people ask are manatees dangerous because of their size, but now that you learned what they are all about, it is no wonder there is nothing to be worried about.
When threatened, manatees do not attack. However, there have been rare occurrences where the animal attacked humans, but it was out of sheer self-defense. Recent studies have suggested that manatees can be aggressive when motivated by psychosexual, reproductive, or resource-monopolization instincts. However, this is extremely rare and occurs only in very extreme circumstances. Some scientists have even attributed such behavior in manatees as fear rather than aggression.
That is, in an attempt for these animals to flee ambush, they might behave like they are attacking whereas, they are only trying to escape. In such conditions, manatees can hit with their tails, splash water, or even appear to chase when protecting a calf. An injured manatee may also seem aggressive when cornered. Also, males that are struggling to mate can seem agitated when disturbed.
However, their large size and slow movement prevent them from gaining enough momentum to cause harm. In fact a manatee’s body is so soft that if the animal collides with you, it would feel like you are hit by a giant pillow. Based on this how would you respond if someone said to you “are manatees dangerous?”
Now that you know manatees are friendly and non-aggressive animals, you might want to know if you can touch them. While people do tend to desire touching manatees in Florida, I would recommend that you do not touch them. Not because the animals will hurt you but because touching the animals can be detrimental to them. The following are some reasons why you shouldn’t touch a manatee and it has nothing to do with whether or not a manatee is dangerous.
While you won’t hurt a manatee by touching it, touching it can cause a change of behavior in the animal. At the moment, manatees are considered as threatened species. Their docile, peaceful, easygoing nature and natural curiosity make them easily predisposed to several risks. Like I mentioned earlier, manatees do not have any know predators in nature except humans. Most of the time, they are killed when humans ride speed boats recklessly on water. So, when you touch a manatee, there is a possibility that they might get accustomed to getting around humans.
With time, they might lose their fear for humans and boats in the long run. Also, when they get too used to humans, it might distort their breeding, sheltering, feeding, and other behavioral patterns. More so, when manatees get used to getting belly rubs, hugs, and petting from humans, they start to learn to interact with humans.
When people swim with the manatees, they will likely approach every human they see, including those in boats that might eventually lead to their death with time. At the moment, the most frequent reason why manatees die is from boats in Florida.
Manatees are very sensitive mammals that can pick even the slightest changes in the environment. Even the slightest human actions that might seem inconsequential to you may have far-reaching consequences for these animals. After such human interactions, some scientists say that some of them may choose not to return home to safe waters again. That means they might be exposed to extreme cold, which could cause cold stress syndrome in the animals.
Cold stress syndrome is a disease that affects manatees and usually comes with several problems. Usually, it happens when manatees are exposed to the harsh cold during the winter. Some problems that could happen include injuries due to frostbite, severe stress as the animal attempts to keep warm, and in extreme cases, the manatee might die.
The final and probably the most important reason why you should not touch a manatee is because it is illegal. Naturally speaking, Manatees do not have any natural predators except human beings and nature itself. Unfortunately, humans have done a good job in reducing the number of these animals in the water. To protect and preserve these gentle creatures, the US government and the state of Florida have several laws to punish anyone that harass these creatures.
At the moment, three laws protect manatees. This includes the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. These laws protect manatees and prohibit feeding, harassment, harm, pursuit, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, annoying, or molesting manatees.
To protect the manatees and their habitat, the state of Florida also established regulatory speed zones for boats. These zones are located in areas where manatees are known to live or travel on a regular or seasonal basis.
Anyone convicted of violating state law faces a maximum fine of $500 or up to 60 days in prison or a combination of both. A conviction for violating federal protection laws carries a fine of up to $100,000 or a year in prison or a combination of both.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), touching manatees is considered a violation of US federal laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Protection act. So, if you are caught touching a manatee, you could pay fines up to $500 or get a jail term of up to 60 days or a combination of both. However, if you touch the animal in a considered extreme manner and threaten the animal’s life or cause injury or death, you will be charged with the Federal Protection laws. In such a case, you might be looking at a fine of up to 50,000 dollars or a 1-year jail term, or a combination of both.
Considering how playful and peaceful manatees are around humans, you might easily forget they are wild animals when you are on a Crystal River manatee swim. Besides, the idea most people have about wild animals is that they are all dangerous creatures. Therefore, when we see friendly creatures like manatees, dolphins, etc., we tend to forget they are still wild even though they are gentle.
But then, when handling manatees, try your best not to forget that they are wild animals. And like other wild animals, the best way to interact with manatees is via passive observation. That means, when you see a manatee, keep enough distance that allows you to see the animal well enough without disturbing, touching, or harassing them in any form.
Doing any of these things can alter their natural behavior and put the animals in danger. Attempting to hook, hold, snag, grab, hit, ride, or punch a manatee are examples of such behavior you should avoid. Harassment also includes attempting to feed or water a manatee, moving your hands or objects in the direction of a manatee, and poking, prodding, or stabbing one with your hands.
Now you know. Next time you are out swimming with manatees with your friends, and if they get the wrong impression of these cute sea creatures by asking ‘are manatees dangerous?’ you can simply respond with these quick facts which will hopefully let them understand that they are simply big, loveable, peaceful, and protected animals.
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