Southeast Region
Conserving the Nature of America

Florida manatee cow and calf. Photo: Keith Ramos, USFWS

West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus)

  • Taxon: Mammal
  • Range: Throughout the Caribbean basin, including the southeastern United States, eastern Mexico, eastern Central America, northeastern South America, and the Greater Antilles
  • Status: Endangered and Proposed for Reclassification as Threatened

The West Indian manatee is a large, aquatic mammal. There are two subspecies of West Indian manatees: the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus), and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris). Due to their eating habits, manatees are nicknamed ”sea cows” because they eat seagrasses and other aquatic plants.

Manatees are protected under the Endangered Species Act and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Today, the rangewide population is estimated to be at least 13,000 manatees, with more than 6,500 in the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. When aerial surveys began in 1991, there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida. Today there are more than 6,300, representing a significant increase over the past 25 years. Learn more about the manatee’s road to recovery.

News and Events

Appearance

Manatees are large, elongated marine mammals with paired flippers and a large, spoon-shaped tail. They can reach lengths of over 14 feet and weights of over 3,000 pounds. Manatees are typically greyish brown in color. They have sparse hairs spread across their bodies, with bristles about the muzzle.

A large Florida manatee above a school of fish looking directly into a camera under water
A Florida manatee “strikes a pose” with its aquatic neighbors at Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County, FL: part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Keith Ramos, USFWS.

Habitat

Manatees live in marine, brackish, and freshwater systems in coastal and riverine areas throughout their range. Preferred habitats include areas near the shore featuring underwater vegetation like seagrass and eelgrass. They feed along grass bed margins with access to deep water channels, where they flee when threatened.

Florida manatees can be found throughout Florida for most of the year. However, they cannot tolerate temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time, and during the winter months these cold temperatures keep the population concentrated in peninsular Florida. Many manatees rely on the warm water from natural springs and power plant outfalls.

During the summer manatees expand their range, and on rare occasions are seen as far north as Rhode Island on the Atlantic coast and as far west as Texas on the Gulf coast. Manatees may travel hundreds of miles during a year’s time, preferring to travel along channels and shorelines.

Diet

Manatees feed on plants. They prefer submergent vegetation, such as turtle and manatee grass, and will feed on floating and emergent plants as well. Manatees also require freshwater for drinking.

Historic Range

Historically, West Indian manatees were found along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, throughout the Caribbean, and as far south as Brazil’s Atlantic coastline. However, due to hunting, habitat fragmentation and loss, and other factors, manatees have disappeared from various parts of their range. For example, manatee hunts were common untill the early 1900s, and as a result the species is no longer found in Guadeloupe and other islands in the Lesser Antilles.

Current Range

Today manatees are found in the southeastern U.S., eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panamá, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and in the Bahamas.

Map of the range for the West Indian manatee
Map of the West Indian manatee’s range. Jane Cooke, USFWS.

Where to See Manatees

In the U.S, good places to see manatees include Blue Spring State Park (Florida), the Haulover Canal Manatee Viewing Area (Florida), and Three Sisters Springs (Florida). When viewing manatees in Kings Bay, please demonstrate your “Manatee Manners.”

For other places to view manatees visit http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/where-to-see/. Before you encounter a manatee be sure to brush up on the FWC’s viewing guidlines to ensure the safety of both yourself and the manatees.

Manatee Protection Areas

A sign in a canal advising boaters to procede with caution.
A manatee protection zone sign, photo by Jim Valade, USFWS.

Within the U.S., the most significant causes of death and injury for manatees are watercraft collisions. To reduce the effect of collisions on manatees, boat operators are required to slow down and or avoid regulated areas commonly used by manatees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and others designate, mark, and enforce manatee protection areas.

Southeastern Wildlife Refuges that Provide Habitat

Recovery Plans

The manatee is currently classified under the Endangered Species Act as endangered.

Following extensive review of the threats the manatee faces as well as the conservation actions currently in place to help recover it, the Service proposed on January 8, 2016 to reclassify the species as threatened.

Florida Manatees

Actions Needed for Recovery

  • Minimize causes of manatee disturbance, harassment, injury and mortality
  • Determine and monitor the status of the manatee population.
  • Protect, identify, evaluate, and monitor manatee habitats.
  • Facilitate manatee recovery through public awareness and education.

View the Recovery Plan

Antillean Manatees in Puerto Rico

Actions Needed for Recovery

  • Identify, assess and reduce human-related manatee mortality.
  • Identify and minimize alteration, degradation, and destruction of habitats important to the survival and recovery of the Puerto Rico manatee population.
  • Develop the criteria and biological information necessary to determine whether and, if so, when to reclassify the Puerto Rico population of manatees.

United Nations Environment Program Regional Management Plan for the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus)

Conservation Challenges

Primary threats to the West Indian manatee include habitat loss and fragmentation, entanglements in fishing gear, collisions with boats, and others.

The most significant problems presently faced by Florida manatees is the loss of warm water habitat, and death and injury from boat strikes. Natural threats can include harmful algal blooms, cold weather, tropical storms and hurricanes, tidal entrapments, and disease.

Partnerships, Research and Projects

Whether capturing manatees for health checks, research purposes or rescuing stranded/distressed animals, doing so is a challenging effort requiring a dedicated team of public and private manatee conservation partners.

We work with federal, state, academic and non-profit organizations across the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico to conserve manatees. Outside the U.S., there are many countries and organizations working to conserve manatees.

A group of conservation professionals captures a stranded manatee with a net
A US Geological Survey-led team captures a manatee for a health checkup. Team members include the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of Florida, Lowry Park Zoo, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and others. Photo: Jim Valade, USFWS.
  • USGS Manatee Sirenia Project

    Conducts long-term, detailed studies on the life history, population dynamics, and ecological requirements of the West Indian manatee. Sirenia Project biologists work cooperatively with federal and state researchers and managers on research identified as essential for the recovery of the species.

  • Monofilament Recovery & Recycling Program

    An effort across the state of Florida to educate the public on the problems caused by monofilament line left in the environment, to encourage recycling through a network of line recycling bins and drop-off locations, and to conduct volunteer monofilament line cleanup events.

  • Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership

    The MRP is a cooperative group of non-profit, private, state, and federal entities with a stake in tracking the post-release fate of rehabilitated manatees in the wild. The goal of the manatee rescue and rehabilitation program is to treat sick and injured manatees and release them back into the wild.

  • Sea to Shore Alliance

    A member of the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Partnership, Sea to Shore is responsible for tracking and monitoring rescued and rehabilitated animals to ensure that it is properly adjusting to life in the wild.

How You Can Help

Be Mindful of Manatees while Boating

This is one of the most important things you can do to help manatees. Boaters should obey posted manatee protection area restrictions. When you travel slowly through these areas, you give manatees a chance to safely get out of your way. In addition, when you travel slowly, they‘re easier to see. Watching manatees has become a national pastime – enjoy! (You will improve your ability to see manatees if you wear sunglasses with brown, polarized lenses.)

For more tips, read the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s “A Boater‘s Guide to Living with Florida Manatees,” and bring it with you on your next trip.

Help Keep Wild Creatures Wild

It is best for humans to minimize interactions with manatees. You should never initiate contact with a manatee. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has produced a series of videos called “Manatee Manners” that provides tips on how swimmers, boaters, photographers and paddlers at the refuge should behave when sharing waters with manatees. View Manatee Manners online.

Subject Matter Experts

There are many agencies and organizations with people who can talk to you about manatees. You may want to contact:

  • Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (Puerto Rico): (787) 999-2200
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: (850) 922-4330
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Florida Ecological Services Office: (904) 731-3332
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office: (787) 851-7297

Designated Critical Habitat

Map of critical habitat for Florida manatee
Critical Habitat for the Florida manatee, Jane Cooke, USFWS

Critical habitat for the West Indian manatee was described in 1976 in 50 CFR 17.95 and only identifies areas in Florida. Critical habitat includes:

Crystal River and its headwaters known as King’s Bay, Citrus County; the Little Manatee River downstream from the U.S. Highway 301 bridge, Hillsborough County; the Manatee River downstream from the Lake Manatee Dam, Manatee County; the Myakka River downstream from Myakka River State Park, Sarasota and Charlotte Counties; the Peace River downstream from the Florida State Highway 760 bridge, De Soto and Charlotte Counties; Charlotte Harbor north of the Charlotte-Lee County line, Charlotte County; Caloosahatchee River downstream from the Florida State Highway 31 bridge, Lee County; all U.S. territorial waters adjoining the coast and islands of Lee County; all U.S. territorial waters adjoining the coast and islands and all connected bays, estuaries , and rivers from Gordon”s Pass, near Naples, Collier County, southward to and including Whitewater Bay, Monroe County; all waters of Card, Barnes, Blackwater, Little Blackwater, Manatee, and Buttonwood Sounds between Key Largo, Monroe County, and the mainland of Dade County; Biscayne Bay, and all adjoining and connected lakes, rivers, canals, and waterways from the southern tip of Key Biscayne northward to and including Maule Lake, Dade County; all of Lake Worth, from its northernmost point immediately south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Florida State Highway A1A southward to its southernmost point immediately north of the town of Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County; the Loxahatchee River and its headwaters, Martin and West Palm Beach Counties; that section of the intracoastal waterway from the town of Seawalls Point, Martin County to Jupiter Inlet, Palm Beach County; the entire inland section of water known as the Indian River, from its northernmost point immediately south of the intersection of U.S. Highway I and Florida State Highway 3, Volusia County, southward to its southernmost point near the town of Sewalls Point, Martin County, and the entire inland section of water known as the Banana River and allwaterways between Indian and Banana Rivers, Brevard County; the St. Johns River including Lake George, and including Blue Springs and Silver Glen Springs from their points of origin to their confluences with the St. Johns River; that section of the Intracoastal Waterway from its confluences with the St. Marys River on the Georgia-Florida border to the Florida State Highway A1A bridge south of Coastal City, Nassau and Duval Counties.

Petition for Critical Habitat Revision

In 2008, the Service was petitioned to revise critical habitat for this species. In 2010, we found that a revision was warranted but precluded due to other priorities.

Historic News

Additional Resources

Federal Register Documents

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species” scientific name. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.