National Wildlife Refuge System

A Heavenly Twin for the Manatee

The new Manatee Nebula, 18,000 light years away, was named for the endangered aquatic mammal at Crystal Springs Refuge, FL.
Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, K. Golap, M. Goss; NASA’s Wide Field Survey Explorer (WISE).

In Florida, the gentle aquatic giant known as the West Indian manatee has a new and unlikely body double.
It’s a nebula. 
Good heavens. 
You might not expect a manatee, an endangered species at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, north of Tampa, to have much in common with a celestial cloud of gas. But the National Radio Astronomy Observatory offered proof of the physical resemblance at the Florida Manatee Festival on  January 19, when it renamed the gas cloud the Manatee Nebula. 

Personal appearance aside, the manatee and the nebula share other traits, say refuge and NRAO staff:

  • The cloud is the remnant of a star that exploded in the constellation Aquila, about 18,000 light years away, and is impossible to spot with a common telescope; you need a radio telescope like the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array that can detect the low-energy radio wave light radiated by the nebula’s gases. Manatees can be hard to see in murky shallow waters. Spotters detect their presence by air bubbles and wakes.
  • The nebula bears arc-like scars carved into it by particles blasted from the jets of the exploded star’s remnant, a black hole, at its center.  The scars bring to mind the scars many manatees bear from boat propellers that have gotten too close.
  • The nebula took more than 10,000 years to assume its manatee-like shape. Manatees also have a long gestation and infancy period – well, at least compared to other earthly creatures. Gestation lasts 12 to 14 months; infancy, two to five years. 

This year’s festival falls on the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, signed into law by President Nixon in December 1973. The law has saved hundreds of species from extinction. Today it protects 1,434 species in the United States and 618 abroad. 

Crystal River Refuge was established in 1983 to protect the endangered West Indian manatee, a mammal that propels itself with flippers and weighs about 1,000 pounds. In winter, Kings Bay’s warm water springs host the largest natural concentration of manatees in Florida.

Other nebulae named for animals include the Eagle Nebula, the Crab Nebula and the Pelican Nebula. 

Last updated: January 23, 2013