Manatees are also called sea cows, due to their large size, and grazing nature. While manatees and cows are both mammals, there are plenty of differences between the two.
With manatees holding the name sea cow, you may wonder how closely related the two animals are. Did manatees evolve from cows?
Where exactly did these majestic sea creatures come from?
Here you will find out the peculiar origins of the manatee, and if they actually have any relations to cows.
What are Manatees?
Before answering the question “did manatees evolve from cows”, let’s first take a look at these gentle giants to get a better understanding of them.
Some may wonder, what is a manatee?
Manatees are a type of marine mammal. There are around 130 described species of marine mammals, which are divided into the orders of Cetacea, Sirenia, and Carnivora.
Manatees belong to the order of Sirenia, also called sea cows. Manatees are actually the inspiration for the mermaid.
They are large, with most growing to about 13 ft, and they typically weigh around 1,300 lbs.
Manatees despite their large size are herbivores. They feed on seagrass and other aquatic plant life. It is estimated manatees feed on about 60 different species of plants.
They are able to consume around 4 to 9 percent of their body weight in plant life daily.
These large sea creatures are relatively peaceful. Usually, they swim slowly but are able to use their strong tails to move and swim up to 19 mph.
Rivers, bays, mangroves, and other coastal waters are where these large sea mammals may live.
Did manatees evolve from cows?
Scientific evidence suggests manatees have inhabited the earth for around 60 million years. While called sea cows, manatees did not evolve from cows.
Surprisingly manatees do not share a common ancestor with other sea mammals like dolphins, whales, or seals.
So where did manatees come from?
The closest living relatives of manatees are actually elephants.
Both animals evolved from ancient hooved Tethytheria.
The oldest ancestors of the manatee were land animals, which scientists describe as species that looked like a cross between a hippopotamus, and an otter.
While elephants evolved on land, manatees evolved to be aquatic.
As manatees went into the water their bodies got larger which helped store heat. Their metabolism slowed allowing them to expend less energy.
Manatees and Cows
So despite being called sea cows, manatees are actually more related to elephants.
While manatees did not actually evolve from cows, there are a few similarities between the animals.
Both are mammals, but manatees spend their life in the sea instead of on land.
Manatees and cows are also herbivores, feeding on different grasses they come across while grazing.
Are Dugongs Manatees?
While we know cows are not manatees and are not related, what about Dugongs?
These animals are both called sea cows, but are they the same?
Dugongs are also members of the Sirenia order but are the only species not classified as a manatee.
There are many similarities between the two animals like their aquatic nature, large size, and herbivorous diet.
Dugongs, however unlike their relatives, never leave the ocean and are not found in freshwater rivers, streams, or other similar sources.
Dugongs live in shallow waters near the coast, like mangroves, and bays.
On average the dugong is slightly smaller, having a length between 8 and 10 ft. They usually weigh between 550 and 1100 lbs.
Their bodies are similar, but the dugong’s tail is shaped more like a dolphin, while manatees have beaver-shaped tails.
Dugongs also have a much longer lifespan of 70 years, while manatees only live for up to 40 years.
Dugongs and manatees are the last animals in the Sirenia order.
They both evolved around the same period.
These sea animals are one of a kind, as they share no other common ancestors with other marine mammals.
The Types of Manatees
While manatees are called sea cows, there is actually an extinct giant that once held this name.
Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis giga) is a now-extinct relative of the manatee that is believed to have gone extinct in 1768.
This large sea mammal was only first described in 1741, by George Wilhelm Steller.
The Steller’s sea cows are reported to have reached 26 to 30 ft. in length, and weighed up to 8,800 lbs.
These extinct giants are much larger than any of the manatees we have today but were sadly hunted to extinction.
There are 3 different manatees species today, which make up 3 of the 4 extant members of Sirenians.
Manatees face the same threats that the enormous sea cow faced, and are now at risk of extinction like their relatives.
Here are the different types of manatees that are alive today.
The Amazon Basin within Peru, Columbia, Brazil, and Ecuador are where the Amazonian manatee lives.
This species is the only Sirenia that primarily inhabits freshwater. Amazonian manatees are also the smallest of the three extant manatee species.
They have smooth rubbery skin, and uniquely lack the nails on their flippers.
The Amazonian manatee’s weight ranges from around 200 to 800 lbs.
The largest ever recorded had a weight of 836 lbs, and the average length of this species is around 9 ft.
Sadly Amazonian manatees have a conservation status listed as vulnerable, and their population continues to decline.
Western African Manatee
The African manatee is the only species that lives in the Old World, inhabiting much of western Africa from Senegal to Angola.
They have the most extensive range when compared with other sirenians.
African manatees are found in rainforest rivers, near the shores of islands in the Atlantic, and in coastal waters within their range.
Western African manatees are herbivores, but out of the three manatee species they feed more often on non-plant material.
Manatees may sometimes eat clams, mollusks, and fish in nets, but their diet varies depending on their location.
It is possible their diet may contain an average of 50% of non-plant material if they live off the coast.
The African manatee is listed as a vulnerable species and has a declining population.
It is estimated there are only around 2,500 to 3,000 left in the wild.
West Indian Manatee
The West Indian manatee is also called the North American manatee.
It is also the only one of the three species that have subspecies which are the Antillean manatee (T. m. manatus), and Florida manatee (T. m. latirostirs).
From Florida to the Gulf Coast, into the Caribbean is the water where this sea mammal lives.
They migrate to warmer waters when it gets cold, and are seen in the United States from the coastal waters of Texas to Rhode Island.
Today the West Indian manatee is the largest species of all. They grow over 9 ft. long and weigh over 1,000 lbs.
The largest ever West Indian manatee may surprise you, as it grew 15 ft. long, and weighed 3,649 lbs.
Sadly like others, West Indian manatees are declining in population.
It is estimated there are less than 2,000 adults left in the wild, as once their range and population were widespread.
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