North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

Manatee Fact - Native to Florida?

One of the more persistent misconceptions appearing in "Letter to the Editor" columns and comments in response to Service proposals includes the idea that the Florida manatee is an exotic, introduced species. This is not the case.

One source of the persistent "non-native species" myth may come from a study conducted in south Florida in the 1960's. This study assessed the effectiveness of Florida manatees as a means to control exotic aquatic plants and was based on similar work conducted with Antillean manatees in Guyana. While Antillean manatees were never brought to Florida for the purposes of the study, the study generated a lot of publicity and confusion about non-native manatees, exotic plants, and Florida's manatees.

The Florida manatee is one of two sub species of the West Indian manatee. West Indian manatees are a species known to range from Brazil north to Mexico and the southeastern United States, including the Caribbean islands. This species includes two sub species, the Antillean manatee and the Florida manatee. The Antillean manatee ranges from Brazil to Mexico, including the Caribbean islands. The Florida manatee is found in the southeastern United States, with the core of its range here in Florida.

Manatees are well represented in Florida’s fossil record. Their remains date back to prehistoric times and they are one of the more common vertebrate fossils known from ancient marine deposits. Manatee remains are also found in Native American rubbish heaps in Florida, sites that pre-date the arrival of the early Spaniards. The early colonists described how these natives hunted the manatee and were quick to appreciate the intrinsic value of the species.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, papal decrees and British law sought to dictate who, when, and where these animals could be killed. In 1893, the state of Florida passed legislation that prohibited killing manatees. The West Indian manatee, including both Florida and Antillean sub species, was further protected in 1972 and 1973 with the passage of both the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, respectively. Florida followed suit, further protecting the Florida manatee through state endangered species legislation and subsequently through the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act in 1978.

The Florida manatee is a significant part of the State's natural, cultural, and historic heritage. By continuing our work together, we can see to it that manatees are a continuing part of our heritage and our future.

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Last updated: November 20, 2019