From: Mindy Townsend, Care2, More from this Affiliate
Published November 29, 2014 07:55 AM

Manatees need some love too!

Manatees can be divided up into three distinct species that roughly correlate to where they live. The West Indian manatee lives in the Caribbean and is divided into two subspecies: the Florida manatee and the Antillean or Caribbean manatee. Manatees also live in the Amazon and off the West African coast, called the Amazonian manatee and West African manatee, respectively. (A possible new species of dwarf manatee has been seen in freshwater habitats in the Amazon, but the veracity of that claim in in question.)

According to the IUCN, all three extant species of manatee are considered vulnerable, which means that they are at a heightened risk of extinction. The manatee’s Pacific cousin, the dugong, is also vulnerable. Hopefully, we’ll be able to learn a lesson from our experiences with another manatee relative, the Steller’s sea cow, which humans hunted to extinction less than 30 years after its discovery.

Despite the nickname “sea cow,” manatees are most closely related to elephants.

On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between manatees and cows. Both are slow-moving herbivores and neither can see very well. However, when you scratch the surface, things get more interesting. Sirenians, the order to which manatees belong, came on the scene about 50 million years ago. Like whales, manatees evolved from land animals that returned to the sea. One of its closest relatives, in fact, is the elephant. In fact, the West Indian and West African manatee have fingernails on their flippers that look suspiciously like the fingernails on elephants. (Although the Amazonian manatee and dugong have lost their fingernails, they are just as closely related to elephants.)

Manatees are smarter than you think.

When it comes to animal smarts, everyone thinks about dolphins or great apes. Manatees, with their slow, lumbering bodies, don’t exactly evoke brilliance. For a long time scientists thought that manatees weren’t very intelligent at all because their brain lacks the wrinkles that generally indicate intelligence.

That assumption is changing, however. There is evidence that manatees are just as good at experimental tasks as dolphins, but because manatees are herbivores, they are harder to motivate. In addition, manatees have evolved a complex and highly sensitive sense of touch and hearing that other animals just don’t have. While a lot is still unknown about manatee brain development, this indicates that they aren’t just big, dumb beasts.

Manatee image via Shutterstock.

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