Manatees – Nicaragua’s Fascinating Aquatic Mammals
As the largest surviving member of the aquatic mammal order Sirenia, which includes the dugong and the long extinct Steller’s sea cow, the West Indian manatee is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature. Nicaragua has some of the largest areas of habitat favored by the manatee and is home to a significant number of the remaining population of the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus) – the subspecies found in Central America. Manatees enjoy shallow estuaries, saltwater lagoons, canals, slow-moving rivers and coastal areas where aquatic vegetation is found in abundance, as they can consume up to fifteen percent of their body weight in food each day.
Adult West Indian manatees are an average of ten feet long, weighing between 800 to 1,200 pounds. They are gray in color with bodies tapering to a flat wide tail used to propel them through the water. Their two front flippers have three or four nails on each, while their wrinkled faces have whiskers on the snout. They may look clumsy, but manatees are really agile in water and are known to swim upside-down and perform somersaults and rolls. They are found in both freshwater and seawater habitats, having the ability to adapt to either. While their diet consists primarily of vegetation, they do eat fish and small invertebrates. Their molars are continually worn down by the tough vegetation they eat, and are replaced by new ones throughout their lives.
In addition to habitat destruction and poaching, the manatee’s slow rate of reproduction is a factor in their dwindling numbers. Females are capable of reproduction at the age of four years, but most start breeding between seven and nine years of age. After a twelve to fourteen month pregnancy, just one calf is born, although twins have been reported on occasion, and within three weeks baby manatees are eating aquatic vegetation. Manatees have an average lifespan of between twenty and twenty-six years, during which time the female may produce up to seven offspring.
Visitors to San Juan de Nicaragua (previously San Juan del Norte) should take the opportunity to visit the Manatee Sanctuary where they are very likely to see these fascinating marine mammals as they enjoy their natural habitat in this spectacular region of Nicaragua.