What is the Antillean manatee?
The Antillean manatee is among the more mysterious of the manatees—slow-moving yet graceful swimmers that are lovingly nicknamed "sea cows." It's a subspecies of American manatee, which also includes the better known Florida manatee that resides along the eastern coast of the United States. Unlike its sister subspecies, the Antillean manatee primarily lives in the tropical and subtropical zone from the Bahamas to Brazil. Its dwindling numbers have led to its endangered designation on IUCN's Red List. Conservation groups say that this manatee is particularly difficult to protect because relatively little is known about it.
Habitat and diet
While Antillean manatees are found in shallow coastal waters throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, their most important habitat is found along the coast of Belize, where they swim in the country's rivers, lakes, lagoons, and coastal marine environments, including seagrass, mangrove, and coral reef ecosystems. These environments provide a critical system of pathways that manatees use to access the different places where they eat, drink, rest, mate, and nurse their young. Antillean manatees are able to stay in salty marine or estuarine environments for extended periods, but they do need access to freshwater.
As herbivores, Antillean manatees rely mainly on seagrass for their diet. These flowering underwater plants flourish throughout their habitat. The subspecies has also been known to eat algae and other plants, as well as the occasional accidental ingestion of an invertebrate.
Behavior and reproduction
Antillean manatees have not developed strategies for avoiding predators because they simply don’t have many. Whales and sharks generally prefer deeper waters, leaving humans as their primary threat. Without the need to flee predators, manatees can afford to move as slowly as they do, at about five miles per hour.
Manatees are generally solitary aside from breeding season, when they come together in mating herds. But they don’t produce many offspring: Breeding females give birth to about one calf every two years, a low rate that has contributed to their dwindling population.
Threats to survival
Scientists estimate that fewer than 2,500 adult Antillean manatees remain in the wild, but that figure has been difficult to confirm as their populations are "patchy and fragmented." Humans pose the greatest threat: Not only has pollution from agriculture and mining degraded the mammals' habitat, but an increase in human activities—like tourism, fishing, and farming—have also had dire consequences. Antillean manatees have been found entangled in fishing nets or killed in collisions with watercraft. Poachers, too, are a threat. Though this practice has curbed somewhat in recent years, Antillean manatees are sometimes hunted for their meat.
In Belize, National Geographic Photo Ark EDGE Fellow Jamal Galves is an associate research biologist with the manatee conservation program at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. His team provides the Belizean government with the data it needs to establish manatee sanctuaries, reduce watercraft speed limits, and fight poaching. The organization also educates local communities about Antillean manatees in hopes that they too will join in the conservation effort.