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MANATEES
The West Indian Manatee is the largest member of the aquatic mammal order Sirenia. Like other manatees, the West Indian Manatee has adapted fully to an aquatic life style, a flipper instead of hind legs. These manatees generally live in shallow coastal areas. During summer, these large mammals have even been found as far north as Rhode Island. Manatees have a large digestive system, and unique, continuously replacing molars, to cope with an herbivorous diet. The manatee eats abrasive plants that wear down these molars. As an adaptation, new molars form at the back of the jaw and move forward, pushing out the oldest and most worn teeth. How fast these new teeth grow depends on how much fiber is in the plants that they eat. Manatee's small eyes have a 'nictitating membrane', a sort of clear lens, that can be drawn across the eyeball for protection. Manatees have fairly good visual acuity and can distinguish between different-sized objects, different colors and patterns. Manatees emit sounds underwater that are believed to be used in communicating with one another, like a conversation. Vocalizations may express fear, anger, or sexual arousal. They are also used to maintain contact, especially when manatees are feeding or traveling in turbid water. Especially common are the vocalizations between cow and calf. Adult manatees move through the water primarily by the pumping action of the tail. The front flippers are used for steering and lateral movement, crawling over the water bottom, or for putting food into the mouth). Young manatees even seem to propel themselves with their flippers.

Manatees do not form permanent pair bonds. During breeding session a single female, or cow, will be followed by a group of a dozen or more males, or bulls, forming a mating group. Although breeding and birth may occur at any time during the year, there appears to be a slight peak in the spring session in calve birth. Manatees usually bear one calf although twins have been recorded. Intervals between births range from three to five years (a two year interval may occur when a cow loses a calf soon after birth.) The gestation period is approximately thirteen months. Mothers nurse their young for a long period and a calf may remain dependent on its mother for up to two years. The cow assumes total responsibility for raising the calf without the bull. Calves nurse under water from a nipple located behind the cow's flipper and begin to eat plants a few weeks after birth. Scientists believe females do not become sexually mature until five to nine years of age. They live long lives- it is believed that manatees are capable of living 60 years or more, but because of the many perils in the wild, longevity is uncertain. Because the reproductive rate is so low, the species as a whole adapts very slowly to changing situations or unnatural stress. The current population is estimated to consist of at least 1,200 animals. The manatee was officially declared endangered in 1973, as part of the original endangered species listing for the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Ultimately, the loss of habitat is the most serious threat facing the manatee today. Florida, the fourth most populous state in the nation, is experiencing unprecedented growth. Nearly 1,000 people a day move to Florida, with over 80% settling near waterways. The growth in human population with its added pollution, litter and boat traffic, has degraded and/or eliminate the manatee habitat. Many fresh water and marine grass beds have been lost due to water pollution, herbicides, surface runoff, propeller dredging, and dredge and fill projects. There are very few places left where the manatee is free from the danger, stress and harassment posed by human activity.

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