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Manatees: The Sometimes Social Animal

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By Julia Sayers

Manatees, once thought to be mermaids, have always been a little bit of a mystery. Their social behavior seemed to be a mix of independence and herd life. No significant contributions were made in behavioral studies until the 1950s, when Joseph Curtis Moore observed manatees congregating around a power plant in the Miami River, and the late 60s when Daniel Hartman started a long-term behavior study in Crystal River.

Manatees are considered semi-social animals, which means that with some exceptions, the basic social unit is the female and her calf. Any other groups are temporary. These temporary groups could be manatees wanting to mate, gathering around a fresh water source or seeking warm water around a power plant in winter.

Mating herds are formed when a group of male manatees follow a female around, sometimes for a month at a time. During this time, the female tries to escape her pursuers, often swimming into shallows to keep them from her underside. After what is known as a consort period, the “herd” will break up and the males will leave the pregnant female alone. The father manatees don’t play any role in raising the calf.

When the female has her calf, it will remain close to her side, able to swim minutes after birth. The calf will normally swim parallel to its mother, directly behind her flipper. This makes communication easier and is also more hydrodynamic for the calf.

Manatees have also been known to form playgroups where they bodysurf or play follow-the-leader. Bodysurfing is where manatees ride the currents in coordinated parallel formations, while nuzzling and vocalizing with each other. Follow-the-leader is a behavior in which manatees swim single file, synchronizing all of their movements, diving and even breathing.

Despite the fact that manatees are often found alone, communication is still a very important part of their life. Not much is known about how manatees communicate, but it involves vocalization, nuzzling and acoustics. Manatees communicate with others during playtime, and communication between a mother and her calf is necessary.

When manatees aren’t busy playing or raising a calf, they can be seen swimming around happily by themselves. This semi-social lifestyle also makes it much easier when it comes to releasing manatees back into the wild.  Unlike dolphins or whales, manatees are generally more independent, so rehabilitators don’t have to worry about whether or not the manatee will find a pod and fit in with it. They are perfectly content with their semi-social lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t like to have a little fun every once in a while!

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Written by juliasayers

August 24, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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