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The manatee could be mistaken for a mermaid

Posted in Animals, Biology, Fish, Legend, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 20 February 2013

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This edited article about the manatee originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 146 published on 31 October 1964.

manatee, picture, image, illustration

Mermaid or manatee?

When nature designed the manatee she was not quite sure whether it was going to be a fish or a land-living animal. For although this queer creature spends all its life in the water it feeds by browsing on vegetation.

At one time zoologists thought it was a close but small relative of the whale. It has a fish-shaped body, forelimbs like paddles and the flat, horizontal tail of the whale.

But there the resemblance ends. The manatee has teeth, whereas the whale has none. It does not blow like a whale, but comes to the surface of the water to breathe just as a land animal would do. And even more unlike whales, it is not a deep-sea creature, seldom venturing far from the coast or the mouths of rivers.

Actually, the creature is closely-related to herbivorous (plant-eating) land animals such as the cow. It is thought that the ancestors of the manatee were land animals which through millions of years became specially adapted for feeding on underwater vegetation.

When the manatee periodically raises its head out of the water to breathe, it has a strangely human appearance. This probably gave rise to the legend of the mermaid. For that reason its Latin zoological name is Sirenia, from the Latin word, sirene, meaning “sea nymph.”

There are three species. One is native to South America, one to North America, and the third to the coast of West Africa. No adult species is more than eight feet long and all have a smooth, hairless skin.

The forelimbs or flippers are oval shaped and have three nails at the tips.

Manatees’ mouths are specially designed for cutting great swathes of underwater vegetation.

The upper lip consists of two bristly pads by means of which the weed is sucked into the mouth, where it is squeezed and pressed by horny plates on the palate. The process of chewing is helped by eleven pairs of cheek teeth in each jaw.

These teeth are constantly being renewed. They are arranged in such a way that as the front ones are shed their places are filled by teeth from behind. As the first teeth are used up before the last of the series has fully developed, only six teeth are functioning at the same time.

Manatees eat such enormous quantities of water weeds that in 1962 their appetites were exploited to clear thick growths of weeds which were choking the drainage ditches and canals in Georgetown, British Guiana.

A force of 70 of the animals was taken on the strength of the British Guiana Department of Drainage and Irrigation. When they were put to work in a badly-choked canal they relentlessly cut a swathe through the vegetation, so enabling the water to flow more freely.

When they reached the end of the canal the vegetation had grown again behind them. So the manatees turned and mowed it down again.

Travelling backwards and forwards along the canals, the aquatic lawnmowers can in a few hours clear an amount of weeds which it would take a gang of men several days to do. On one occasion two large ponds each covering an area of nearly 4,000 square yards and hopelessly choked with water weeds were cleared by three industrious manatees in a week.

Incidentally, the British Guiana manatees are the first marine animals that have been successfully domesticated by man and made to work for him.

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