Through the centuries, the seas were thought to be full of krakens, sea serpents, sea monsters and other fantastical creatures. The vast, mysterious ocean became a realm of lure and myth through the element of storytelling. As these stories were handed down through the generations, sailors would shout out any mythological creature that came to mind as they saw a hump clear the surface of the water, or the unknown sound of something hitting their boat.
One such creature that shows up over and over again in these tales is the mermaid. Mermaids took on many different appearances, origins, and personalities. The first recorded half-fish, half-human creature is Oannes, a Babylonian god from the 4th century BCE who would leave the sea every day and return at night. The ancient Greek sirens, would lure sailors to their deaths in Homer’s Odyssey. Described as having bird bodies, they are often portrayed as fish-tailed mermaids. Although these sirens had vicious personalities, as did the mermaids in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Other versions of mermaids can be kind, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Because of storytelling, the world became saturated with mermaid mythology. Even Christopher Columbus had a mermaid sighting of his own, but little did he know that he had just reported the first manatee sighting in North America. It may seem a little strange to confuse a slow-moving, blubbery sea cow with a beautiful, fish-tailed maiden. Yet it became common enough that the scientific name for manatees and dugongs is Sirenia, a name reminiscent of mythical mermaids. Let’s look at the non-mythical manatee and the problems that this mammal faces.
The manatee is a rather large mammal ranging between 8 to 13 feet and weighing around 440 to 1300 pounds. They are peculiar creatures with an egg-shaped head, small flippers and a flat tail. Their flat tails assist them into propelling themselves through the waters and can also launch them into moving at a more rapid pace, if necessary. They are relative to the elephant. Despite their size, they are graceful, slow-moving swimmers that can be found in shallow waters, such as rivers and canals, or even saltwater bays.
There are three different variations or species of the manatee. They include:
Trichechus inunguis – consists of the Amazonian and the South American
Trichechus manatus – consists of the West Indian, the American, and the Caribbean
Trichechus senegalensis – consists of the African and the West African
The names of the species of the manatee indicate the regions in which they live.
For example, the Amazonian dwells in the Amazon River, anywhere from the headwaters of Columbia or Peru to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil. The African lives along the coastline and rivers of the western part of Africa. The West Indian manatees are the manatees known to migrate to Florida in winter months. They have been known to travel farther to such states as Georgia and the Carolinas.
Manatees are often referred to as “sea cow” because of their shape. However, surprisingly, all manatees are vegetarians or herbivores. They prefer sea grasses, algae, and freshwater vegetation. Manatees only have molars to grind their food but throughout the lifetime, the molars are replaced several times. The molars eventually wear down and fall out and then are replaced with new.
The entire species are becoming endangered and facing a high risk of extinction. They have been listed on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Partly due to their sweet demeanor and slow-moving reaction, manatees have been hunted for their meat, eaten by larger, more aggressive mammals, and have been struck by boats. The Florida manatee, specifically, are estimated to be around 2,500 for each subspecies and that number is expected to slowly decline by 20 percent over the next 40 or so years.
Manatees are easily injured or killed due to their large size and generally slow pace, which makes them vulnerable to being hit by motorboats and caught in fishing nets. Another threat to manatees is blooms of poisonous algae, which can grow rapidly during warm summers, especially in areas with nutrient pollution from fertilizer runoff. Some types of algae produce a toxin that contaminates the manatees’ wetland and estuary habitat and sticks to the seagrass they eat, making manatees sick or even killing them. Unusually cold water in the winter can also kill many manatees.
With all of these factors combined, manatees are suffering. Florida manatee deaths hit a record high in 2013, manatee deaths hit a record high in 2013with 829 killed—about 17 percent of the known population, including 126 calves. Of these, 276 were killed by algae blooms, 115 from an unknown disease, and 72 from boat collisions. Because of such harrowing statistics, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed all three species of manatees as vulnerable to extinction, and a few manatee subspecies as endangered. One subspecies, the Antillean or Caribbean manatee (Trichehus manatus manatus), currently has a population of just 2,500 mature individuals and is expected to decline by more than 20 percent over the next two generations unless something can be done to reduce these threats. There is also trouble for dugongs, close relatives of the manatee that share many of the same threats. The IUCN lists the dugong as vulnerable, as it is extinct or declining in at least one-third of its range.
If we don’t take action against speeding boaters and reduce fertilizer runoff, we may lose these creatures, and a source of mermaid myth will vanish from the ocean forever. So please give your support in any way that you can.