Photos by Chris Shuck
Today is Manatee appreciation day, and what better way to appreciate them than highlight them here at Zoo Nation. From myth to conservation, manatees have a rich history in Florida. Ancient Greeks in sea fearing villages told mermaid legends. It is said that mermaids have a female torso and a fishtail. While some films have given mermaids memorable personalities, one thing they have in common is that they can sing. Legend goes that it was their voices that lured sailors into the deep or lead ships to run-a-ground on rocks. They also go by another darker name, sirens.
While mythology has been passed down through history, most likely what these sailors, who a good portion of their lives at sea, saw were not exactly mermaids, but were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (another species that went extinct in the 1760s due to over-hunting). Even Christopher Columbus mistook a manatee for a mermaid in 1493. The story goes that as he was sailing to the New World he encountered three mermaids (which were actually manatees) while sailing near the Dominican Republic He described them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
While most people think about the Florida Manatee, there are actually a few different species. The Florida manatee is a West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus). The Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) and the West Africa Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) are the other two species of manatee. Manatees are in the order Sirenia and share many similar characteristics with their cousin, the Dugong, found along the eastern coast of Africa, South Asia, and Australia.
The legacy of manatees has always been a story of mistaken identity. In fact, if you look closely at their order they belong to (Sirenia) you can see their scientific name even bears its mythical origin. Unfortunately, mistaken identity almost cost the manatee its life. Manatees can be mistaken for rocks because they are slow moving. Many manatees have been injured or killed by boat strikes and monofilament fishing line. Additionally, urban encroachment has allowed for manatees to seek warmer water along power plants and sewer drains during cold weather. The other cases of manatee death or injury arise for cold-stress. Because of this, manatees are on the endangered list and are carefully observed in various states such as Florida.
The good news is that the because of protective measures and various conservation efforts, the manatee is on the rebound with a record set this year of 6,000 spotted in Florida and could soon be taken off the endangered list all together. It is through the work of various organizations that manatees have been rescued and rehabilitated. These organizations also helped to educate the public and develop various programs to protect the species. Through research and education, manatees have gotten a new lease on life.
There are many ways you can help these animals. While you’re out enjoying recreational activities on waterways, be sure to slow down in no wake manatee zones and to properly dispose of your monofilament fishing line. You can continue to support the survival of theses animals by joining in conservation efforts such as environmental cleanup, recycling, reusing, and educating others. Together we can continue to ensure the survival of this species as well as many others if we all work together.