MANATI (often anglicized as "manatee"), the name, adapted from the Carib manaltoui, given by the Spanish colonists of the West Indies to the American representative of a small group of herbivorous aquatic mammals, constituting, with their allies the dugong and the now extinct Rhytina, the order Sirenia. The name, though possibly of Mandingo origin (see MANDINGO), was latinized as manalus, furnished with hands, thus referring the etymology to the somewhat hand-like form, or hand-like use, of the fore-flippers, which alone serve these creatures for limbs. Manatis, as shown in the illustration in the article SIRENIA, are somewhat whale-like in shape, having a similar horizontally expanded tail-fin; but here the resemblance to the Cetacea ceases, the whole organization of these animals being constructed on entirely different lines. The American manati, Afanatus (or, as some would have it, Trichechus latirostris) , inhabits the rivers of Florida, Mexico, Central America and the West Indies, and (From Murie.)
Front view of head of American Manati, showing the eyes, nostrils, and mouth. A, with the lobes of the upper lip divaricated ; B, with the lip contracted.
measures from 9 to 13 feet in length. The body is somewhat fishlike, but depressed and ending posteriorly in a broad, flat, shovellike horizontal tail, with rounded edges. The head is of moderate size, oblong, with a blunt, truncated muzzle, and divided from the body by a slight constriction or neck. The fore limbs are flattened oval paddles, placed rather low on the sides of the body, and showing externally no signs of division into fingers, but with three diminutive flat nails near their extremities. No traces of hind limbs are discernible either externally or internally; and there is no dorsal fin. The mouth is peculiar, the tumid upper lip being cleft in the middle line into two lobes, each of which is separately movable. The nostrils are two semilunar valve-like slits at the apex of the muzzle. The eyes are very minute, placed at the sides of the head, and with a nearly circular aperture with wrinkled margins; and external ears are wanting. The skin generally is of a dark greyish colour, not smooth or glistening like that of whale or dolphin, but finely wrinkled. At a little distance it appears naked, but close inspection, at all events in young animals, shows a scanty covering of delicate hairs, and both upper and under lips are supplied with short, stiff bristles.
Manatis have a number as many as 20 pairs in each jaw of two-ridged teeth, of which, however, but comparatively few are in use at once. They lack the large tusks of the male dugong, and the fore part of the skull is not so much bent down as in that animal. In life the palate has a horny plate, with a similar one in the lower jaw. The skeleton is described under SIRENIA.
Manatis pass their life in the water, inhabiting bays, lagoons, estuaries and large rivers, but the open sea is unsuited to their peculiar mode of life. As a rule they prefer shallow water, in which, when not feeding, they lie near the bottom. In deeper water they often float, with the body much arched, the rounded back close to the surface, and the head, limbs and tail hanging downwards. The air in the lungs assists them to maintain this position. Their food consists exclusively of aquatic plants, on which they feed beneath the water. They are slow in their movements, and perfectly harmless, but are subject to persecution for the sake of their oil, skin and flesh. Frequent attempts have been made to keep specimens alive in captivity, and sometimes with considerable success, one having lived in the Brighton Aquarium for upwards of sixteen months. From such captive specimens certain observations on the mode of life of these animals have been made. We learn, for instance, that from the shoulder-joint the flippers can be moved in all directions, and the elbow and wrist permit of free extension and flexion. In feeding, manatis push the food towards their mouths by means of one of the hands, or both used simultaneously, and any one who has seen these members thus employed can believe the stories of their carrying their young under their arms. Still more interesting is the action of the peculiar lateral pads formed by the divided upper lip, thus described by Professor A. Garrpd: " These pads have the power of transversely approaching towards and receding from one another simultaneously (see fig.). When the animal is on the point of seizing (say) a leaf of lettuce, the pads are diverged transversely in such a way as to make a median gap of considerable breadth. Directly the leaf is within grasp the lip-pads are approximated, the leaf is firmly seized between their contiguous bristly surfaces, and then drawn inwards by a backward movement of the lower margin of the lip as a whole." The animal is thus enabled by the unaided means of the upper lip to introduce food placed before it without the assistance of the comparatively insignificant lower lip, the action recalling that of the mouth of the silkworm and other caterpillars in which the mandibles diverge and converge laterally during mastication. All trustworthy observations indicate that the manati has not the power of voluntarily leaving the water. None of the specimens in confinement has been observed to emit any sound.
The Amazonian manati (M. inunguis) is a much smaller species, not exceeding 7 or 8 ft. in length, and without nails to the flippers. It ascends most of the tributaries of the Amazon until stopped by rapids. From a specimen which lived a short time in London it appears that the lip-pads are less developed than in the northern species. The third species is the West African M . senegalensis, which extends a distance of about ten degrees south and sixteen north of the equator, and ranges into the heart of the continent as far as Lake Tchad. From 8 to 10 ft. appears to be the normal length; the weight of a specimen was 500 Ib. The colour is bluish black, with a tinge of olive-green above and yellow below. (R. L.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)