Diet and Feeding Habits
The manatee is an herbivore due to the fact that they only consume plants. There are more than 60 types of plants that they are known to eat. They are opportunistic so they will consume what they have access to in a given environment. As they migrate, the seasons changes, or the water temperatures change the foods that they can access may change. Stomach contents observed have found plankton often.
Most experts though don’t believe that they consume it intentionally. Instead, the plankton are mixed up in the vegetation that they plan to eat. Therefore, it ends up being a byproduct of what they plan on consuming. The body seems to do just fine with this type of additional food source.
A common problem and risk for manatee are various forms of debris from humans including plastic that get mixed up in the vegetation. When they consume various amounts of such debris, it can result in serious problems internally for their digestive tract. It can result in an internal infection and even internal bleeding.
They consume up to 10% of their body weight each day. Depending on the age, weight, and gender of the manatee, that could range from 35 to 100 pounds of food per day! They have to consume large amounts of food daily because the vegetation doesn’t offer them much in terms of overall nutritional value. The manatee is a slow eater and tends to spend a significant amount of their time grazing and eating.
The upper lip of the manatee is divided and that allows the two sides to work well for them when it comes to feeding. They also use their front flippers to access the vegetation. The roof of the mouth of the manatee and the lower jaw work to help them break up the vegetation into smaller pieces. The molars are used to grind the food before it is swallowed. Many people assume that the manatee swallows the vegetation whole due to their body size but that isn’t the case.
The body of the manatee does look like they have plenty of fat reserves but they don’t. The shape of the body is offered to provide room for the stomach and intestinal region. The manatee is able to feed both at the surface of the water and the bottom of it. This provides them with plenty of dining opportunities.
Two of the three species of manatees must have access to fresh water to drink on a regular basis. Studies indicate that all of the species do consume fresh water for drinking at various points in their life cycle. As a result, migration for food as well as for fresh water is a big part of survival for the manatee. Some of them have been recorded as migrating over 2,000 miles in a given season in order to find food for survival.
Some studies have shown the Amazon species to actually fast in November and December due to the dry season. The water levels drop significantly and this reduces their ability to get to proper vegetation. They can fast for several months when other species can’t due to the fact that they have a slower metabolism. This could be a form of evolution that was necessary for them due to location.
Even though it is rare, the manatee has been seen consuming other types of food when their natural diet is too limited. The West African species has been documented to eat clams if no plants are readily available. The Antillean species will occasionally snatch fish from fishing nets. The West African species has also been known to consume planted rice.