At the Zoo: Florida Manatee
If you are fortunate enough to enjoy Florida’s warm coastal waters and springs, you might have the opportunity to see a unique species of marine mammal, the Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. Manatees are often referred to as “sea cows” because they are herbivores that graze on freshwater and saltwater plants. Florida manatees were once on the brink of extinction. There are natural threats to manatees in the wild, like cold stress, pneumonia and other diseases, but much more often manatees are affected by human-related activities like boating accidents, getting trapped in flood control structures, swallowing fish hooks and litter, and harmful algal blooms.
The story of one of those manatee patients follows. A young male manatee named "Martide," was rescued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) after stranding himself on a beach, suffering from seizures. Martide had been poisoned by red tide, a seasonal toxic algal bloom that harms many marine animals. Red tide affects the manatee’s nervous system and they are unable to control their muscles. First, FWC had to get Martide safely to the Zoo’s Manatee Hospital in a big box truck. Manatees can be safely out of the water for a few hours, but his rescuers misted him with water to keep his skin moist. Once Martide reached the Zoo, a dozen members of the staff and FWC volunteers lifted him off the truck and into a special sling, attached to a large crane. The crane then lifted him into Medical Pool 1 where the Zoo’s veterinary staff weighed and measured him, took his vital signs, and started treatment for his condition.
Martide, like other manatees infected with red tide, received 24/7 care from the Zoo staff until the toxin was out of his system and he regained control of his muscles. For some red tide manatees, rehabilitation can take as much as 2-3 years. Martide spent only a month in the Manatee Hospital before he fully recovered and could be returned to the wild.
Martide is just one of our success stories. Since 1991, the David A. Straz Manatee Hospital at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has treated over 400 Florida manatees.
About: Florida Manatee
Fresh, marine, and brackish water areas. Generally found in slower moving water between 3 and 20 feet deep. In the gulf, almost always found near a river's mouth.
Southeastern United States through the Caribbean islands, eastern Central America, and the northern coast of South America. While Florida is the northern end of the manatee's permanent range, they may be seen as far north as Virginia and the Carolinas, and as far west as Texas during the summer.
Weight: 3,500 pounds (maximum), 793-1,190 pounds (average).
Length: 12.7 feet (maximum), 9.8 feet (average).
Aquatic vegetation. Will ingest invertebrates living in the vegetation.
Fun Facts: Florida Manatee
- Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has cared for more than 400 manatees.
- 71 calves have been treated to-date.
- 82 manatees are injured by boat strike each year.
- Rescued manatees stay an average of 173 days at our hospital.
- It takes $30,000 per month to feed the manatees, making them the most expensive species to feed at the Zoo.
- The closest living relatives of manatees are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago.
- Manatees’ teeth are continuously replaced throughout their life. Older teeth move forward and newer teeth grow in the back of the mouth.
- Manatee brains are smooth (compared to our own) and the ratio of their brain to their body size is the lowest of any mammal; however, manatees can learn basic tasks, are extremely sensitive to touch, and can differentiate colors.
- A resting manatee can hold its breath for up to 15 minutes, but when swimming they must surface every 3 to 4 minutes.
- Adult manatees have a big appetite. A manatee can eat a tenth of its own weight in just 24 hours!
Conservation: The Florida Manatee
The decline of the Florida manatee population was caused mostly by the impact of humans on their environment. When we learned how we were endangering manatees, it became possible for us to make choices to protect these peaceful sea giants. The manatee is protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act.
David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center
The story of the manatees at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo spans 25 years and over 360 treated manatees, since the David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center opened in 1991. The manatee hospital was the first facility ever built to care for ill or injured manatees, whether harmed by humans or by natural causes. Here you’ll find Florida’s only permitted, non-profit manatee hospital.
The manatee hospital features three 16,000 gallon medical treatment pools, two underwater treatment pools, and a public observation area from which visitors can observe veterinary and rehabilitation procedures in real time!
Boat strike injuries, entanglements in pollution, cold stress, red tide toxicity, and loss of a parent are the main reasons manatees come to the manatee hospital. A small, but dedicated team of animal care and veterinary staff tend to the patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This facility’s doors are always open to manatees in need. Though it is often stated that the medical pools’ capacity is 15 animals, during times of crisis, they have held up to 22 animals. No manatee has ever been turned away. This is an incredible challenge and even greater accomplishment for our licensed, non-profit hospital. In 2012, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) awarded the Zoo its North American Conservation Award for Manatee Care and Leadership in Manatee Conservation.
How You Can Help
Adopt an Animal!
You can help support expert animal care at the Zoo as well as local and global conservation efforts by purchasing a symbolic animal adoption package.
When you become a member of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo you are supporting conservation year-round.
Be a Conservation Leader!
The Zoo’s mission is to connect people with the living Earth and the manatee hospital is the pulse of that mission. However, it is the guests and contributors who are passionate about our environment, who help make it possible to do the work needed to save these animals. This is your Zoo. Members and guests who are frequent visitors to the Zoo can follow each manatee’s progress from critical care to recovery to release. Children, who will decide the future of conservation, are able to see how their actions can change the world. These connections help make it possible for the manatees’ stories to end happily ever after.
- If you see an injured manatee, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Department at 1-888-404-3922.
- Fish responsibly – Make sure you don’t leave hooks or fishing line behind since these can injure or kill wildlife.
- If you are boating, watch for manatee zones – Slowing down allows manatees to swim out of the boat’s way.
- Consider downloading the FREE iPhone app – This alerts you when your boat is entering a manatee zone. Download the app here.
- Decrease fertilizer use in gardens – Nutrients from fertilizers increase the intensity of red tide, which is a toxic algal bloom.
- Clean up litter – Litter can wash or blow into waterways where manatees and other marine life can get tangled in it or accidentally eat it.
- Eat sustainably caught seafood (see Seafood Watch) – These support healthy marine food webs leading to healthier manatee habitats.